It's Time to Rethink "Pro"

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There has always and invariably been a "pro" version of whatever software I have used.  This version was always enhanced with additional features that a frequent user would really want. Finely tuned options, extended ranges, elimination of handicaps from the free version, and a miriad of other enhancements for the application. This way of selling software has been The Way Things Are Done™ for as long as I can remember.

But I think that's going to change soon. It has to change or software developers will not be able to sell their software or SAAS anymore. There will simply be no market thanks to the growing arena of open souce software and platforms. Paid software has to adapt to the times.

Open source software is a hard to beat deal: free and functional software. This looks great to anyone with a budget; namely, everyone. Free or $100, and it does the same thing? Is this a trick?

But no, paid software has been safe, as it had things to offer that open source software did not. Paid software often had proprietary features. It was easy to use and came with support contracts; the kinds of things businesses rely on. It has also traditionally been easier to use than open source software.

Developers of open source software have been playing catch up, that's for sure, but I think its been a little too long since paid developers have looked back to see just how close the open source community was getting. Which is funny, because it's really the same people writing both, one on the company dime and the other in their free time.

In many areas, the software developed for fun and as a hobby has reached par with its paid counter part. Take operating systems, for example: not many people would argue that many Linux distributions aren't at least as good as Microsoft's Windows or Apple's OSX. Even the casual user can sit down at a vanilla Ubuntu install and figure out what is going on and get just as much utility from the system as one of its paid counter parts.

Not only is the function catching up, so is form. Open source software is really learning how to present itself, and let me say it cleans up well. Or can.

And some companies exist solely to offer support contracts for open source software.

So where does this leave paid software? Where does this leave "pro"? In a pickel, it would seem. No longer can you just leave out the ability to do something crucial in your application because the open source alternative has that feature and it works for free.

Hope is not lost, though. We just have adjust what we think of as "pro" to be more in line with what I would argue should have always been our idea of "pro".

Think of what a "pro" user really is. They're someone that uses this type of software a lot. They know the line of business inside and out. They're using your software to get stuff done. This means in order to compete with open source software one needs to not just make it possible to accomplish their task, but one needs to make it easy. You have to automate the small things. You need to understand the line of business you're targeting to make the software do the heavy lifting for your user. Validation, workflow, and design become much more important if you want to keep your customers paying.

Like it or not, software is almost universally free now. But only functionally. There is still value in well crafted, programmed, designed, and executed software. Value that customers will pay for if it can improve their lives.

But heaven help us if the open source community ever finds user experience designers.