With Paint.NET v3.07, there was a subtle change in the release notes:

  • Changed: The help file / documentation is now hosted online. This has reduced the download size by more than 3 MB, and will also allow us to provide translations without ballooning the size of the download (each language would have added between 2 and 4MB).

This was firstly possible because the Paint.NET help content is just a collection of HTML pages that load in your browser. So I guess my first recommendation is to do the same: write your help content with a copy of your favorite web page editor. I use FrontPage 2003. Yeah, I know, I’m lame J But heck, I also use CVS, which means I’m “stupid and ugly” according to Linus Torvalds! (I’m not defending CVS. I just happen to use it.)

This change was made for many reasons, not all of which were necessarily listed in the change log, but all of which I see as advantageous:

  • Smaller Download Size. It dropped from 4.5 MB down to 1.5 MB. That’s an enormous savings.
  • Easy to Correct. If there is a typo or error, I can fix it and just upload the new version of the page.
  • Easy to Amend. If I want to add a new topic, I can now just write it up and click “upload”.
  • Localization. This ties in to the three previous ones, and I’ll discuss it below.
  • Statistics. I can now get usage data on the help content itself.
  • Search. Since it’s just a web site, it’s now easy to add a little search box on there.
  • Advertising. Now I can place Google AdSense or other things on the pages.

There is only one negative that I could think of:

  • Offline Access. It isn’t easy to access the help content anymore if you aren’t connected to the Internet. But you can mitigate this by offering an optional download for the small number of people who care about this. And also for anyone volunteering to do localization.

Almost all of these can affect your ability to make money from your freeware project.

Smaller Download Size

I’m going to publish a completely separate article on this because what I was typing got really long and I want to keep this post focused. Stay tuned!

Easy to Correct, Easy to Amend

Sometimes I get an e-mail from someone telling me about a typo on the website or in the help content. It used to be I’d have to file a bug in my Bugzilla database to make sure it got fixed before release. Now I just fix it, upload it, and I’m done. Sometimes I also get the itch to update or freshen pages (like I did with the Features page on the main website recently). This has less to do with making money and is more about simply being agile with your product.

Localization

Before, if I had wanted to publish the help file in all of the other 7 languages that Paint.NET is released in, it would have ballooned the download size to about 22 MB (at an estimated 2.5 MB per additional language). Most of this increase comes from screenshots which have text and must be done separately for each language. Most users only care about 1 of those languages so this ends up being an incredible waste of bandwidth. And on that note, most users don’t use the help content at all and so even downloading 1 language’s worth of it is a waste for them.

I can now also publish extra languages on a schedule independent of the main Paint.NET release, which relieves a lot of potential scheduling hassle. This is also directly related to having a smaller download size which, again, I will talk about later. And if you put advertising on your help pages then a user is more likely to see an ad in their preferred languages and thus much more likely to click on it.

Statistics

I now know how many people are reading the help file. I know which pages are popular. I know how many pages are read during each visit. Having good statistics is never a bad thing. Just sign up for Google Analytics and put the code at the bottom of your pages, although make sure it is tracked separately from your main website. Right now the Paint.NET help content is getting about 1,700 visitors per day, which is something I didn’t know before!

Search

There are a few ways to add search to your help content if it’s offline. One way is to use the CHM format, but the tools and utilities I had for managing this were excruciatingly difficult and painful to use. I absolutely hated it, so for version 2.5 I switched to normal HTML. Also, for cross-platform enthusiasts/purists, CHM either restricts you to Windows or forces you to find a different solution for your other target platforms. It just adds to the amount of time you have to spend managing your help content, and reduces time available for other things like drinking beer. Bleh to that.

Another way to get search is to write your own help system complete with original UI, indexing, and searching code (and that’s in addition to writing the content itself!). It’s definitely a challenging and fun direction to go in and you’ll learn a lot, but it’s also a liability in traditional software development terms. More code means more churn means more bugs, and which means less time to focus on the core of your project. Are you in the business of developing indexing and search algorithms? I doubt it. I prefer to let the
big
guns handle that stuff, and focus on what I do and enjoy best.

It’s easy to use something like Google Custom Search to add a search box if your help content is just a collection of HTML files that are hosted online. I only recently added this to the Paint.NET help file and now I really wish I had done it sooner. It isn’t a big earner in absolute numbers, but it’s always good to have another passive income stream – and those nickels and dimes really add up. (Small tip: Don’t look at your daily revenue numbers for inspiration. Multiply them by 365 and consider how they have affected your yearly income! J)

Advertising

Since putting the help content online, I have placed Google AdSense on the pages. I’m also considering using something like Kontera for in-text advertising links. You might think that the added advertising makes the help file ugly or less attractive, and you’d be right. But you need to ask yourself what the best release model is for yourself and your users:

  • Freeware. In this choice you give the software away for free. No ifs, ands, or buts. This is how Paint.NET was for its first 2 years. You won’t make any money at all doing it this way. I sure didn’t. All hosting costs come out of your pocket.
  • Bundling / Spyware / Adware. There’s also a lot of money in bundling stuff that isn’t related to your program. Irfanview, an otherwise highly rated program, optionally installs the Google Toolbar. Lots of other free programs try to install toolbars or set your browser’s homepage. I personally feel that is a dishonest way for the “bundlers” to get their software on people’s machines. This is actually a lot I could talk about on this subject in the areas of business, morals, ethics, etc. and I am planning on dedicating a blog post to it.
  • Shareware. Publishing your software this way is good and legitimate business, and might even be the right thing for your software project (it works for Patrick’s
    Bingo Card Software). You can make a lot of money with this strategy if your download and conversion numbers are high enough. But, of course people have to pay for the software which means you’ll have fewer users. Going in this direction also means you have to manage a business. You’ll have to worry about things like customer service (“I want a refund!”), buying advertising with AdWords or AdCenter, maybe hiring employees, etc. You also lose some potential for ubuiqity, which is important for some types of software (web browsers and image editors, for sure). I currently estimate that Paint.NET has 1 million active users. I regularly have people that work down the hall from me say things like, “Oh, you wrote Paint.NET? I had no idea, cool!” Do you think it would have such ubiquity if it were paid software? Not with my budget (time or money), that’s for sure.
  • Freeware, but with advertising outside of the program (website, online help file). NOW we’re talking! I personally believe that this is the absolute best user experience possible. Users get software for free and you get money so you can afford to manage its continued development. You don’t have to manage a business. If you want, you can take a vacation from the project but still be making money on it. People are used to seeing ads on the Internet. You won’t get any hate mail — I sure haven’t. You should also include a few smartly placed “Please Donate” buttons in the software itself.

I’ll even tell you how successful AdSense has been on the help file, even though I earlier said I wouldn’t publish any comprehensive data. Since Paint.NET v3.07 was released, I’ve made over $1,000 just from the help file. It’s been almost three months since I made this move, and I trust that you can do the math on that.

Conclusion

Putting the help content for your freeware project has almost no negatives. It’s a no brainer. Your download size will decrease, your download counts will go up, and you’ll have extra money in your pocket. Almost every software project is going to be different, so please don’t take this information as canon. This is what works for me, taking into account the direction I want to take Paint.NET and the way I want to spend both my personal and professional time.

Oh, and to keep the bandwidth use in check for your online help content, I recommend using PNGOUT. I’ve seen PNG’s drop anywhere from 5% to 50% in size using this thing! You can purchase a good front-end for it, PNGOUTWin, from Ardfry Imaging (they own PNGOUT). I personally use PNGGauntlet because it’s free, but it doesn’t run jobs in parallel so it runs a lot slower on my Core 2 Quad. Alternately you can use JPEG, but then all your screenshots look like crap.

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