InstallPad – It coulda been a Contenda! (and still might be…)

I came across an interesting piece of software called InstallPad via SDTimes "News on Monday" email newsletter. InstallPad is designed to download and automatically install applications on Windows machines. Relatedly, ever since I first installed FireFox I was very impressed with what a great design they had implemented in their add-on updater. I believer that InstallPad works in a similar fashion.

InstallPad might become really big…

InstallPad was developed by a recent University of Maryland graduate Phil Crosby who evidently interned for both Microsoft and IBM.

Although InstallPad is actually a pretty-simple idea I could see InstallPad become very popular very quickly. It has a viral quality to is that makes me wish I had developed it. As InstallPad can solve a problem for software developers by distributing software updates to their customers, I could see software developers motivated to distribute InstallPad for Phil. All that software developers would need to do is either include InstallPad with their software and/or point their customers to the InstallPad download page. Finding a motivated group of people who can help you succeed is the mark of a true viral strategy.

InstallPad has got all the right attributes. Phil even opened his source code on a subversion server and is asking people to contribute.

And I think he’s got that potential…


Except for one problem. For some unknown reason (I haven’t contacted him to ask, I decided to blog it instead), Phil decided to license InstallPad for Personal Use Only! Instead of using an existing open-source license approved by the Open Source Initiative Phil decided to roll his own and disallow business use. Even though he was quite excited to be frontpaged by Digg his choice of license is going to all but neuter any chance of InstallPad becoming significant. 

Phil probably wants to reserve the right to sell InstallPad to companies as he claims he is working to form a startup. But that is exactly the wrong strategy. In order for InstallPad to be really successful it will need to have a significant percentage of the Windows user base in a given market segment, and I’d estimate that "significant" would need to be at least 30% if not more like 60% or 70% (with a caveat, in a moment.)

Why is having a large percentage of user in a segment so important? Phil needs vendors and software developers to see InstallPad as worthy of support. Because InstallPad could solve a problem for software vendors without them requiring to do much work, it could be a win-win. But only if it gains a significant user base first OR if the software vendors can distribute it for free. (that’s the caveat.) But requiring InstallPad to be purchased for commerical use eliminates the second option and creates friction that minimizes growth of the user base. Alternately, if software vendors are free to distribute Installpad, they could start making their updates available in a InstallPad-friendly format, at an InstallPad-friendly URL, and with InstallPad-friendly configuration files. That would drive InstallPad adoption and increase the number of software applications with which InstallPad would work seamlessly.

Now you could counter with "Phil doesn’t have to do anything special as it can work with existing software as-is," but the reality is there are hundreds of little gremlins that will cause InstallPad to fail and/or require an end-user of InstallPad to have to fiddle to get his app to upgrade. And each time a users has to figure out why InstallPad is not working is one more chance for them to decide InstallPad’s is not worth the trouble.

Or you could say "People can just use it to download open-source apps from SourceForge which already has a compatible Url structure." But don’t you think it’s rather ironic to have a product downloading and installing open-source that itself is not open source?  I think users will view it the same and shy away from it.  And it’s not the type of software that is likely to get a lot of contributers if it is not truly open-source.

The other issue Phil has to concern himself with is that the idea is not very hard to duplicate, especially since Phil offers the source code for public viewing. How long would it take an unethical person to building his own from scratch after viewing the source?  On the other hand, nobody needs to be unethical; they could just reverse engineer it. From what I saw it wouldn’t take long for a pair of professional programmers to duplicate it.  And as soon as someone creates an alternative and licenses it via an approved open-source license their new software gain a large user base much more rapidly. And Phil will be left with having had the great idea first but ultimately InstallPad will become insignificant.

So InstallPad’s greatest potential hedge against competitoon is an installed user base, and Phil should do everything possible to minimize friction to growing that installed user base.  Which means licensing freely for commercial use.

Show me the money!

But you are probably now thinking "How will Phil make money if he gives away his software for commercial use?"  Several ways:

  1. Consulting – Offer himself and/or his team up to work for corporations that want to use InstallPad but that have needs the software doesn’t currently address. Have his software and website proactively solicit for that business. If he doesn’t like the idea of doing consulting he should think about it like this: he is going to be adding features anyway, why not get someone to pay for it upfront? Most companies will be glad to pay a nice consulting fee if you solve a problem for them, especially if what they pay for gets contributed to an open-source project that they won’t have to maintain moving forward and that hopefully others will be paying to improve too.
  2. Dual-License – Just like MySQL, Phil could offer a dual license that offers "Enterprise" features for a fee. His consulting engagements in larger companies to help implement InstallPad would allow his to see the need for features that the general population does not need but that enterprises will pay handsomely to license. And by handsomely, offering at a price that would save large companies a lot on software licensing fees when compared to the offerings of companies like Altiris yet still make his company highly profitable if he keeps his costs under control. Basically he would become the classic upstart as described by The Innovator’s Dilemma.
  3. Other – Thirdly, there are the opportunities Phil won’t even know exist until after he has the asset of a large user base to leverage. It really is true; build it and they will come.

But three things above will not happen until he generates significant growth in his user base and also significant buzz. And I’m here to tell you based on my experience in dealing with thousands of software vendors over the 12 years I ran Xtras, chances of his software growing a significant user base with the current licensing model are slim to none. So he’s absolutely got to open-source it. IMHO anyway. :-)

So Phil; here’s the strategy I think you should use:

Give InstallPad a real open-source license like BSD (but ideally not GPL as it’s requirement for code contribution can cause other problems) and then focus on getting as many people to use InstallPad as possible. Further, create a set of guidelines and/or best practices that a software vendor would use to make their software optimized for InstallPad. You could even create a little graphic they can use, like the "Optimized for Windows XP" logo.

Then start with some mid-size software vendors and call on them to ask them to support InstallPad. You can find these vendors by asking everyone you know which software products are a pain to get updated. I say mid-size because you won’t get the time of day at a large computer, at least not until you have a sizable user base. And a small company’s user base is too small to really give you any leverage in exchange for your effort.  What you want to do is get companies with, say, 10,000 users or more sending out their software with InstallPad and/or sending out emails to their customers with links to download InstallPad.

You need to make it easy for software vendors to contribute "InstallPad Profiles" for their software (you may not have the concept of a InstallPad software profile yet, but you will.) You could use InstallPad to download these profiles from the vendor’s website at a location they give you and then maintain. You can then incorporate all vendor’s profiles into one configuration file which InstallPad users can download from your website or a mirror every time InstallPad runs.

And add a feature that asks your users to let you know about software they want InstallPad to upgrade but that doesn’t work, for whatever reason (i.e. files not available online, crashes during install, no hands-free install, etc.) You could even suggest they ask their vendors to support InstallPad on your behalf. There’s nothing like having a bunch of users begging for something to motivate a software vendors to do something!

If you do all this and you are diligent about "selling" the InstallPad concept to software vendors, you will soon have more users than you can handle and it will be time to find some angel funding!

Concerns about your use of Urls

Regarding the technical side of InstallPad, there are two things you should be aware of. One is a potential concern about how you are groking version numbers from Urls, and the second is an opportunity given your use of Urls:

Contact me if you’d like to know more about these issues. As an aside, I believe Url design is critically important for an optimized Web 2.0 strategy, hence my reason for launching the Well Designed Urls Initiative.

About these Strategies…

One of my specialties as a consultant is software and partner marketing strategies. I learned by studying and doing over the last twelve years founding and running Xtras which I have since moved on from. And I’m sorry to toot my own horn but the best evidence that I’m good was the five year period from 1994 to 1998 when I grew Xtras by over 1700% and was recognized by Inc Magazine on their Inc 500 list of fastest growing private companies in 1999 as #123 on the list. In addition, as I have immersed myself in recent trends, I’ve come to believe that some of these most effective strategies, at least within the foreseeable future, will be to leverage open-source (as if you couldn’t tell), the effects brought on by "Web 2.0," and of course, as always, partnering. Leveraging them, if done correctly, can provide hugh benefits to both customers and the companies that employ them; truly a win-win scenario.

If you are currently unsure how best to leverage open-source, Web 2.0 effects, and partnering strategies for your software and/or website, I can help you devise your marketing strategy on a short-term consulting basis. Alternately, if there is a strong enough fit for my interests, I might even consider helping on a longer term basis is there is equity involved. So if you want to create or improve your strategy, let’s talk.

10 Replies to “InstallPad – It coulda been a Contenda! (and still might be…)”

  1. What a load of self advertising bs. And not even hidden properly behind the "useful" information. It’s "experts" like you that turn good ideas into businesses where the money goes to the redundant consultants.

    Thumbs up!

  2. So are you saying that the strategies I suggested are invalid or poorly thought out, or that you are just objecting to the fact that I offered my services to people who would like some hand-holding for their own special case? I can promise you I’m passionate about these and related strategies. Why is it wrong for me to explicitly make people aware of my services, or are you just one of the Internet purists who don’t think anyone should promote anything on the Internet (even though someone is paying your salary using money they generated in part I’m sure by promoting on the web?)

    BTW, it *is* my blog, after all.

    FYI, I wrote this post because I was inspired to, and only after writing it did I realize that I should make it clear that I offer marketing strategy services. To prove it, read the post again but ignore that last two paragraphs and you’ll see they were an afterthought.

    Finally, I notice you were willing to leave a criticism of me but you weren’t willing to sign your name or leave an email address so I could ensure you say my reply. THAT to me is the REAL LOAD OF BS.

  3. What I am saying is…

    First, your point of view misses the tool’s position from the get-go. The problem, if we stick "one problem" isn’t the license – there’s a long way to go with addressing the real problems hindering its usefulness before that becomes a problem. Hint: it’s in the requirements, requires about a second of thinking and you _should_ realize what the biggest problem is. And that’s obvious to say… anybody with any experience in the area this tool caters for. Strike one.

    Second… You’ve understood the license situation all wrong. I don’t even have to go there, it’s that obvious. Not only that, you continue basing your view on that misunderstanding, going off the mark by a mile, totally separated from reality when it comes to a strategy that will make the app popular and open a real market for the commercial version. This seriously undermines your self-advertising – really, if this is your honest opinion as a professional… I don’t know which is worse, believing it to be realistic or making others believe it. Strike two.

    Third… the strategy you propose is just ridiculous. Combined with the marketing buzzwords (awful lot of leveraging going on in there with them web 2.0 strategies and all), it simply reeks of selling your expertise and impressing people (but who exactly?) with the big words and the professional career etc. – instead of providing a shred of any actual, real, concrete, solid, usable information. It’s fighting practically everything I’ve observed while being involved in this or related businesses. With at least as much experience time-wise. Strike three, you’re out.

    Open-sourced, dual licensed, selling consultancy, leveraging this and that. Sorry, during the last 10 years these have been warning signs indicating the offered advice that doesn’t cost anything is of no real use and the paid information that’s to follow serves only one purpose – which has nothing to do with the actual product itself. And all these lumped together? Game over before it even started.

    Which leads us to the real issue here. The big offensive thing that triggered this is: spamming other sites in order to lure people into reading this kind of shameless advertising semi-cleverly hidden as friendly advice. Sadly there’s enough people who buy into this and make it possible for people like you to make money from it. It would be easy to respond to this on the site that lead me here, but it’d be the wrong place to say anything else apart from issuing a warning about a consultant trying to sound important and hoping make a buck.

    I can only hope Phil completely ignores all this. There’s so much actual information out there and so many people who are able and willing in assisting him with his vision that self-centered, self-serving middlemen like you who make their living from others’ work can, should and hopefully will be cut out.

    If it helps, think of yourself as a record company :)

  4. Well, you actually did return. I really didn’t expect you to.

    But I wonder if you, a person who leaves the fake email address [] can appreciate the irony in your reply? You wrote what I’m sure you believed to be a scathing retort, yet your diatribe had absolutely no specifics! You give me "hints" and tell me I "_should_ realize the biggest problem" instead, you tell me "I don’t even have to go there, it’s that obvious", you then tell me my strategy is "just ridiculous" without a shred of justification. LOL!

    Do you realize how unsupported your arguments are? Here’s a "hint" for you; if you want to debate me, give me specifics. As is, your hand-waving just completely discredits you.

    What’s more, you’ve see my credentials but you are still anonymous. So what are your credentials? Maybe you’ve accomplished significant success with implementing your strategies in the software business? Maybe you are Jeff Bezos or Steve Jobs or Jerry Yank or Marc Anderseen or Larry Page or Sergy Brin, or even Bill Gates or one of thousands of other successful people I could certainly learn from. But given your unwillingness to identify yourself after I’ve criticized you for posting anonymously, I think it’s far more likely either 1.) you got burned by a consultant in the past, 2.) you hold a grudge against me personally for some reason, 3.) you are a resentful legend-in-your-own-mind wanna-be who has never achieved anything significant, or 4.) you once ran a software business that got it’s clocks cleaned by open source competition. Hey, prove me wrong; give me your name and background. Otherwise, you are not worth wasting any more of mine or anyone else’s time.

    As for "my professional opinion", actually I’m not a professional consultant. I’m a professional entrepreneur; I like to build companies. But since I’m between ventures right now I thought I’d mention consulting in this blog post in the rare case someone needed my expertise and their business interested me. I certainly wouldn’t offer to consider taking equity in payment to help a start up with no funding if I wasn’t very confident in my ability to create a very successful strategy! Actually, I really appreciate your comments because you are giving me a chance to explain my situation far more than I would have been able to in the post alone.

    As for "Web 2.0" and "marketing buzzwords", GET REAL! There was no mention of those until the end of the post when I mentioned an initiative I’m working on with no revenue model but because the web needs it and I feel strongly about it; one where it appears the W3C is interested in my involvement (see reference to my blog post on URls at

    Continuing, I didn’t clarify why Urls are important to Web 2.0, but will now. But before I do, do you even know what Web 2.0 is? Maybe you should read this first:

    Urls are important to Web 2.0 because as O’Reilly points out, the web is becoming a platform using lightweight programming with website APIs and Url design is a critical component of website APIs design. Plus Web 2.0 is about rich user experiences and users creating content (blogging, wikis, etc.) The websites offering memorable Urls, especially for user profiles and access to services will have a significant leg up on their competition.

    As for my "spamming", GET REAL again! Google for this post and you’ll find that was the only place I’ve ever referenced this post was on Lifehacker and Phil’s website. That’s hardly "spamming", or are you one of those people who expects all content on the web to be offered free of any commercial concern whatsoever? That is, until it’s for *your* products and services, and then it’ll be okay, right?

    Besides, I can’t help it if my strategy goes against some aging "nugget" of wisdom you hold dear. Earth to "Why did I bother"; The World is Changing! Embrace that change or you’ll end up a "little" man, old and bitter (or woman, as the case may be.)

    As for "a consultant just trying to make a buck", you *really* don’t know me and I take offense at those characterizations. You are making them based on your own nothing more than your prejudices and this post; you are certainly not dealing with reality. If you did know me, you’d know I’m far more motivated to work with interesting people on interesting projects than trying to make a quick buck off of anything. If I were money grubbing, I’d be a lot more well to do than I am. I work on things that inspire me, not on things that just make me money.

    And I’ve actually never liked the professional consulting business because I never liked selling services and because I’d rather work to build my own business than someone else’s, at least in the long run. That is why I started Xtras in 1994; to get away from having to "sell" services, and to be able to build something which others would acknowledge as an achievement, as did Inc. Magazine in 1999.

    That said, if you want to come back and continue this debate, I’d be more than happy to. But if you come back, you sign your posts with your real name, provide your real email address, and give your credentials so that I and my readers can evaluate whether you are worth listening to. Otherwise I won’t waste any more time with someone who’s not professional enough to sign their opinions.

    In closing, don’t bother to post anonymously again because like you said: "Three strikes and you are out."

  5. Nice post Mike, the license is a deal-breaker for me too (and was how I stumbled on your blog – I began searching for anyone else that found it constricting). I like the way that you took it a step further and thought about how Phil actually could make money from his software.

    Now, let’s just hope Phil listens! I don’t really have to want to rewrite it… ;)

  6. Matt,

    Thanks for the nice comments. Phil emailed me after I wrote this and he asked me some questions about how to implement, but he didn’t seem motivated to change from his original license; I don’t know if he did or didn’t. We’ll see. Have you thought about leaving a comment on his blog referencing the licensing issue? If I knew it was truly open source, I’d look more closely at it, but as is it doesn’t make sense.

    Oh, can you elaborate a bit about why you found the license constricting for your use-case? Are you a developer, or an end-user?

  7. Heya Mike,

    I’m a software developer and (within the company I work for) we were looking for a simple tool to allow us to create a single install package that installed a bunch of the commonly used tools that we use. It would be used to bring clean, "nude", machines to a "developer ready" state (with NAnt, Reflector, Notepad++, doxygen, UltraVNC, Subversion/Tortoise etc).

    Installpad looked like a workable solution but I don’t believe the "free for personal use" license would cover our use since I would be using it for our company.

    I was even considering reverse-engineering the XML spec and creating my own Installpad that could use the XML but I thought that would be a little nasty… :)

    I haven’t yet contacted Phil but will do shortly.


  8. >> I was even considering reverse-engineering the XML spec and creating my own Installpad that could use the XML but I thought that would be a little nasty… :)

    If you have to write you own, I don’t think that would be nasty at all. It’s FAR better for EVERYONE if people share file formats (and protocols, etc.) that to create multiple incompatible technology.

    Anyway. let me know what Phil says…


  9. I’ve been wanting to contact Phil but his site (and Installpad’s) has been down for a couple of days now. Just letting you know that I haven’t forgotten!

    Another thought wrt the XML spec was that I wasn’t sure if it’d also be covered by his license. The concern is that I may not be legally *allowed* to write a competing application if the license applies to his XML definition too…

  10. Matt,

    Thanks for the follow up. You know, that’s a really interesting question, and as I’m not an IP lawyer, I’m certainly not the one to make a judgement.

    But it would strike me as just *wrong* to not be able to use the same data format. But of course law doen’t always protect right from wrong. Perplexing.

    Sounds like a good topic for a follow up post in hopes to solicit some legal opinion.

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