How much information to collect from users

I’m starting to roll out a “check online for updates” feature for my various applications. So far, it’s implemented for TagAssist and Count Anything, and I’m gradually adding it to my other applications as I upgrade them.

I thus think that this is a good time to review my policy on collecting information from users. Right now, I use Google Analytics to track visitors to my site: things like what pages they visit, how long they stay on the site, what files they download, and what keywords they used to find the site. I don’t track individual users, but only trends to help me improve the site (like, a lot of visitors are searching for the keyword “PowerPoint”; I ought to add some content about translating PowerPoint files). I also never share this information with third parties (this is basically detailed in this site’s privacy policy).

I think that it’s pretty reasonable to collect this information, especially because I don’t track any individuals. At any rate, almost all the information I get through Google Analytics (and more) would be available from my Apache log files anyway.

But what about checking online? Even if Felix doesn’t send any information, the mere fact of connecting to my server tells me that somebody is running my software, and from the user’s IP address, I could tell a lot more (like link that IP address to the IP addresses of people who have downloaded the software — presto, download-to-install ratio).

So collecting that information could be useful to me, and it doesn’t violate my privacy policy. Even so, I’ve decided not to do it, because my users are checking online for updates: they’re not connecting to my server in order to feed me statistics, and I don’t think it’s reasonable for them to expect that.

Some other software makers are quite strident about “capturing” user information. Many will force you to give an email address before even allowing you to download their software, or make you contact them in order to get a price. They call people like me foolish to not grab every “lead” I can. I strongly suspect that most such companies are run by graduates of marketing or business programs, and not software developers.

But to me, it’s not about what you can do, or what will earn you the most money in the short term, or even what you can get away with. I prefer to be as open and transparent about my activities as possible, and if some action strikes me as sleazy or shady, I’d rather just avoid it.


My thoughts on paid upgrades

Charging for software upgrades is a bit of a touchy subject. The Successful Software blog makes a case for when you should charge for upgrades from the software developer’s perspective.

Charging for upgrades makes a certain amount of sense. It can be a way to fund new development that your users truly want and need. My problem with paid upgrades is when companies start looking at them as a “revenue stream” rather than funding development in the product.

You know what I’m talking about — the company is no longer doing any real innovation on the product, but switches things around a bit and slaps on a new UI every couple of years in order to justify bleeding some more money out of its users. Meanwhile, they keep your data in a binary format or use other tricks to lock you in and keep you from defecting.

In the end, users notice this and start to rebel. In the CAT tool world, people are starting to balk at paying for upgrades, especially just to get bug-fixes (that often aren’t even fixed).

That’s why you can’t make the decision to charge for upgrades purely based on a revenue chart. That’ll work for a while, until your users catch on and defect en masse.

As usual, Seth Godin has something interesting and relevant to say, talking about how his insurance company kept raising his rates by a little bit every year:

I’d get the bill, sigh about the fee, consider the hassle of switching, pay the bill and move on.

Until last week. Last week the number was too high. Something in my relationship with the insurance company shattered. After all, it’s not like they had done anything for me, not like I knew anyone there. It was just momentum. And the number was suddenly enough to make me take action.

In the end, it comes down to a matter of philosophy. Do you want to maximize revenue per user — essentially strong-arming your oldest and most loyal customers into forking over more and more cash — or do you want to continue to innovate, creating loyal customers who will gladly pay for major improvements, and winning you more customers through word of mouth? I love it when I can make a business case for avoiding scumbaggery. 🙂

For the record, I won’t be charging for Felix upgrades until at least version 4.0. Here’s a very tentative release schedule:

  • Version 1.0 – May 2008
  • Version 2.0 – August 2009
  • Version 3.0 – August 2010
  • Version 4.0 – August 2011

So there’ll be no charges for Felix upgrades for at least three years. I’ll make the decision for version 4.0 based on how much true innovation has gone into the product, and whether Felix users feel like a charge is justified.


Listing on Microsoft Office Marketplace

I’ve just got Felix listed on Microsoft Office Marketplace. If you’re a Felix user, I’d really appreciate it if you’d go over there and leave a rating.

It was actually fairly easy to get listed, and best of all, it was free! I simply created a landing page according to Microsoft specifications, and filled out their application form. One of the Office Marketplace people (Rashida Smith) contacted me right away, and I was approved and listed within a week. Thanks Rashida, you were very helpful.

I got the idea for applying from Bob Walsh’s Micro ISV – From Vision to Reality. I plan to post a complete review of this book later, but it contains a lot of great information for people starting a small software business.


Choosing your competition

Eric Sink famously quoted a former Netscape CEO, writing that you should choose competition that’s big and dumb. It seems that I’ve chosen wisely. Hubris and lack of customer focus are great things to have in a competitor.