Why we reversed some of our .NET Reflector decision
By Neil Davidson, April 26th, 2011
On February 2nd Red Gate announced that we’d be charging for the next version of .NET Reflector. We also announced that the current version would expire (versions of .NET Reflector have always expired); if people decided that they’d like to continue to use Reflector, they would have to pay a small amount of money ($35).
Today, we announced that we’re reversing some of this decision. We will still charge for .NET Reflector 7.x, but current users of Reflector will have the option of downloading a free, perpetual version of Reflector 6.8.
This blog post gives a bit more context to the official announcement.
A commercial decision
Red Gate is a commercial company. We make money by creating software that people love, and by then asking them to pay us for it. We then take the money we make, re-invest it in our current products, and create new products.
We bought Reflector from Lutz Roeder because we believed we could take it in a direction that worked both for Reflector users and for us. We thought that our other products would bask in Reflector’s glow, and that we could release a paid-for, professional version that people could upgrade to.
We were wrong.
There was no Reflector glow. There was no evidence – and we analysed the data until it came out of our ears – that Reflector users were any more likely to buy our other products than non-Reflector users, whether it was through some hand-wavy halo effect or whether we tried to actively persuade them. Anecdotally, many people were completely unaware of Red Gate’s association with Reflector.
Keeping Reflector alive
So we were faced with a hard decision. Either we could figure out a way of making money with Reflector and ensure its continued development and success, or we could give up on it and let it wither and die.
We’d already demonstrated to ourselves that a freemium model – one where people were given the choice to pay or not – wouldn’t work. We also looked at other options: support by advertising (the numbers were too small), an honesty box (just a variation of freemium), open sourcing it (not interesting for various reasons). So the choice came down to asking people to pay for Reflector and keeping it alive or maintaining the status quo and watching it die.
We felt that, on balance, it was better – for us and for current and future Reflector users – to ask people to pay for Reflector, and for Reflector to live. We believed that the only way we could make this work was to ask all Reflector users to pay. If only new Reflector users paid, or if people had the choice of using a free, old version of Reflector, then our analysis showed that the numbers wouldn’t work: we wouldn’t make enough money to justify continuing to invest in Reflector. We would end up with the worst of both worlds: people would be irritated by our decision to charge for Reflector, and we wouldn’t be able to afford to deliver on our ambition to continue to invest in the tool.
The expected reaction
We thought hard about this decision before we took it. Before we announced it, we talked it through with many people. We refined how we presented the decision based on the feedback that we had. We knew, based on the reactions that we’d seen as we trialled our announcement, that many people would be upset. We were prepared for people to insult our mothers and to turn the air blue. We weren’t disappointed.
We also knew that most people, if we managed to talk with them, would at least understand why we had taken this decision even if they didn’t agree with it.
We knew people would have an initial, instantaneous emotional reaction. We also figured that, after the initial emotional decision, people’s logic would kick in, they’d calm down, and they’d realise that asking people to pay less than the cost of a decent meal for a tool that they love isn’t, actually, terribly evil after all. How long can you stay worked up over the headline ‘commercial company decides to charge money for software’? This is, in fact, what our tests showed as we trialled the message.
Emotional and practical sides
So, given that things went more or less as we thought they would, why have we reversed part of our decision and why are we now providing a perpetually free version of Reflector with no time bomb to current users?
There are a handful of reasons: one emotional, and two practical.
The first practical one is that the narrative of ‘it’s a complicated, nuanced decision which we thought long and hard about’ isn’t as catchy as the simpler narrative of ‘Red Gate are an evil company who’ve done something dumb’. We simply don’t want people to believe the latter.
The emotional reason is how we – how I – feel about this. The angry tweets and the name calling weren’t pleasant, but it’s actually fairly easy to shrug off hyperbolic name calling. It’s so clearly a juvenile, over-emotional reaction from somebody who’s never going to approve of anything we do.
What is much harder to do, though, is to deal with thoughtful emails of disappointment from the often-silent majority. It’s hard to rationalise away emails from people who understand the arguments, who get why we chose to do what we did, who can see that it’s not a clear cut case of being evil but who still feel that, on balance, what we did was, well, just a little bit icky.
We don’t believe that we would have been forcing people to do something against their wishes – if they didn’t want to pay for Reflector, then they would have the choice not to use it. But that often isn’t how people felt. And knowing that people I trust feel that we’re doing something underhand is uncomfortable.
The second practical reason is that we now have more data. Before we removed the free version of Reflector from our web site we could only guess at what the download numbers would be and how often people would choose to pay for Reflector over not using it or downloading a cracked version from a warez site.
Now that we have those numbers, we believe that the economics support a model where current users can, if they choose, continue to use a free version. We believe that we can persuade at least some of them to buy a newer version, and we believe that we will be able to sustain investing in new versions to make that happen. New users will have to pay for Reflector.
Beyond the simplified narrative
So where are we now? Some commentators have painted our behaviour as the reckless actions of an evil company. I hope I’ve demonstrated that the truth is more nuanced than that. Sure, some people will continue to believe the simplified narrative that we’re evil, but I hope that the more thoughtful people in the .Net community will understand that we’re fallible and imperfect, but that we’re doing our best to grapple with a genuinely difficult situation and come up with a solution that works for Reflector users and for Red Gate.
Co-CEO, Red Gate Software