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RE: Re: Re: Thoughts on a Wolfram|Alpha package for

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  • Subject: [mg101925] RE: [mg101912] Re: [mg101885] Re: Thoughts on a Wolfram|Alpha package for
  • From: "David Park" <djmpark at>
  • Date: Thu, 23 Jul 2009 03:55:21 -0400 (EDT)
  • References: <h41f31$rfv$> <> <27371444.1248261423587.JavaMail.root@n11>

I will tiptoe in with my comments since George has made enough substantial
points to enliven the discussion.

Developing 3rd party Mathematica packages is not hopeless, but neither is it
a living. In my case it pays for Mathematica and computer (one) expenses but
not much more. There are other compensations:
1) I really do like to have a package for my own use that extends the way I
can use Mathematica as a development, study and communications medium, and
have everything in one place. I think it is useful enough to share with
other users for a reasonable price.
2) I like to interact with customers, and with MathGroup, I get many ideas
that help me improve my packages. I actually learn some math and physics
from them.

My experience is that WRI is not a great help to 3rd party developers. Of
course, they don't mind users providing free software on MathSource. They
have a very different attitude between academic and non-academic people and
this overwhelmingly determines their response.

The WRI 3rd party business model does not seem correct to me. It is really a
book publisher's business model. WRI takes the vast proportion of proceeds
and leaves only a small amount for developers. For a book publisher this
might be appropriate because they have to pay for the actual production,
distribution and marketing of the books. It is not at all appropriate for
software that is downloaded and where they have to provide nothing but a web
page. I find that selling through an independent web store such as Kagi is
far better. WRI does not provide ANY value added. Kagi handles all the
transaction business, collects any required taxes, markets all over the
world, and takes only a small reasonable fee. They don't have any dealers in
different parts of the world that also require a cut, and they also pay more
promptly. WRI has 21st century technology with an 18th century business

I seriously doubt the claim that the number of active Mathematica users is
in the millions. That might, with some stretch, be the number that have
Mathematica available to them in some form, but I would guess that the
number of active users is an order of magnitude (or two) less. Otherwise, I
believe that the number of questions on MathGroup, and the number of active
responders would be far greater. Also, if there were really a million users,
it would probably be far easier to sell 3rd party software. One might pick
up a lot just from compulsive shoppers!

George has a very valid point when he talks about the problem of making
notebooks written with 3rd party software available to other users who do
not have the software. I'm certain this hurts the sales of Presentations,
especially since it is so much attuned to using Mathematica as a technical
communication medium. That is why I was so excited when I first saw
Mathematica PlayerPro. I even produced a test PlayerPro version of
Presentations to see that this is easy to do. I believe it would be a huge
breakthrough if WRI could provide a free PlayerPro that was analogous to the
Adobe Acrobat reader. Because Mathematica is so much more expressive than
static or semi-static documents I believe that eventually the technical
community would gravitate to Mathematica as a publication medium. Then there
truly would be millions of active users.

A number of purchasers of Presentations have enquired about making
Presentations a standard package in Mathematica, and a number of them have
written to WRI about it and informed me later. I did make a recording for
WRI on it, but was cut off before finishing and I don't think any developer
ever looked at it. So far, no one at WRI has been willing to look at the

WRI was not very helpful to developers in producing documentation. The
Version 5 Help Browser has serious problems in reproducing dynamic content
within the Browser window. It took WRI two years to provide a reasonably
effective Workbench for Version 6 documentation. The Workbench documentation
itself is quite poor. Workbench does not work well for applications that use
the DeclarePackage construct, and they have a difficult time grasping user
applications that go beyond the immediate WRI documentation needs. (For
example, writing electronic textbooks, writing courseware, and managing
large research projects.) I am presently writing Presentations documentation
in Version 6 style and at least I am now at the point where I no longer have
to fight with Workbench.

There is a problem with charging anything for software. People just think
they can dash off whatever software routines they need and it cost them
nothing. Or that they should be able to get it for free. Some people think
it is actually unethical to charge for software. I think this is very
misguided. (I did check prices on the Wolfram web site a few years ago and
the packages ranged in price from a few hundred dollars to many thousands of
dollars. Maybe with those prices one would balk. These prices might
especially be irksome if the packages are not keep up to date, or are not
well documented. One should remember that academic people do not get a lot
of credit or career advancement from software.)

Presentations sells for $50. (One big booster advised me to sell it for much
more and depend on a few high priced sales. I would prefer to make it
available to more people.) So, if you are working for the minimum wage, how
many hours do you have to save to justify the price? Maybe about six hours.
And how much do students pay per year to attend university, especially some
of the more expensive private ones? How much debt do students leave college
with these days? How much is their time worth? $50 seems to me like a
trivial price - if the package really is useful and saves time on more than
a single problem. 

In many cases I have provided solutions to questions on MathGroup with
Presentations, and often when no other regular solution was provided, but
this hardly ever results in a direct sale. In one case a person posted a
problem and I had a number of communications with the poster, and finally
provided a solution with Presentations. I sent a PDF to him, and also posted
the solution on MathGroup and at Peter Lindsey's site: 
But after purchasing a package was mentioned all communication stopped, and
a week later the person was back on MathGroup looking for a free solution.
So even $50 or a 3rd party solution without any WRI sponsorship, or belief
that the solution couldn't be trusted was too great a barrier to overcome. 

So there is a large credibility problem in selling even inexpensive
Mathematica software.

Finally, some comments on factors that I believe contribute to a good
general purpose package.
1) The package should be a natural extension of Mathematica without
interposing a new user interface. The regular Mathematica interface is
pretty good and it is just an annoyance to users to have to learn a new one.
2) The package should have 'hierarchical depth' in the sense that rather
than providing large set-piece solutions, perhaps with many options, it
should provide routines with which users can easily craft their own
solutions. A user shouldn't have to rewrite a routine to apply to his or her
own case.
3) It should be well documented. Documentation is equally or perhaps even
more important than the routines.

(And George is talking about the other David. He's never purchased any of my
packages, which all work with Version 7.) 

David Park
djmpark at  

From: George Woodrow III [mailto:georgevw3 at] 

This is my take on the situation:

Over the years, I have purchased any number of add-ons for  
Mathematica, including stuff from Wolfram and some third party  
packages, including David's.

I've been disappointed time after time. (It wasn't *my* money most of  
the time, so the time saved by using the winners usually made up for  
the bad choices.)

First, even for Wolfram applications, there is the inevitable lag  
between a new version of Mathematica and an update to the packages.  
This problem was worst with major changes, such as Mathematica 3 and  
6. Many of my add-ons are still not working with Mathematica 6 or 7.

This is understandable for a one person shop: the transition from  
Mathematica 2.x to 3 and 5.s to 6 were substantial. However, it has a  
serious impact on the perceived value of the add-on.

Second, as the capabilities of Mathematica have improved, it is simply  
easier to write my own code. I am sure that this is the case with many  
Mathematica users.

There is also enough free stuff out there that 90% of the code for any  
specific application is already done.

Also, I would generally want to customize the code. If I did the work  
myself, then I'd already understand what is going on. Trying to alter  
an existing program is more difficult. My code might not have all the  
bells and whistles of a polished app, but generally, I only need a  
subset of the code to get the job done.

If I want to send the program out to my co-workers, I cannot assume  
that they also have the package or add-on, so anything I want to  
deploy cannot have any expensive dependencies.

I looked into this possibility as a source of income (and something to  
do) in my retirement. I came to the conclusion that there are only two  
viable business models:

1.	Develop something and sell it to Wolfram. An example of this is the

Classroom Assistant in Mathematica 7 (I'm assuming that there was some  
compensation involved.)

2.	Develop a turnkey application using Mathematica for an application  
that does not require any knowledge of Mathematica. Player Pro is a  
delivery system for this application model. There are certain  
advantages to using Mathematica over developing a program in c/c++.  
However, this is not the type of program we are talking about here.

It is easy to be wrong about this. After all I do not have any numbers  
about Mathematica users. Wolfram states that the number is in the  
millions, but I am not sure that the vast majority of these are  
students. I am surprised that it is hard to reach a break-even  
userbase of as little as 200-300 users.

In many ways, using Mathematica is similar to the way it was in the  
1970s, before there was any 'commercial' software. I use the Apple ] 
[ as an example, but it was only the first commercial PC.

Mathematica takes the place of the built-in BASIC interpreters. People  
shared programs. There were books of programs that you could type in.  
(A *BIG* program at the time was 300 lines of BASIC code.) There was a  
lot of sharing. People were happy to show off by providing neat code  

I missed those days. With Mathematica (and especially the newer  
versions), I can recapture the essence of using the computer to do  
mathematical things without all the overhead of learning c, Xcode, etc.

I may be an aging idealistic hippie, but I think that there will  
always be enough people who will delight in sharing what they know  
that the market for paid mathematica add-one will always be undercut.  
The nature of Mathematica itself, and Wolfram Research's ecosystem  
that encourages this type of thinking.

So to summarize: I think that there is little market for Mathematica  
add-ons for the following reasons:

1.	Poor support in most cases. Code that breaks with each new version  
of Mathematica is a poor value.

2.	Free code that is 'close enough' trumps paid code unless the paid  
code is really exceptional.

3.	The mind-set of the users who might buy mathematica add-ons is  
biased towards either rolling their own or finding something free.


On Jul 20, 2009, at 7:21 PM, AES wrote:

> In article <h41f31$rfv$1 at>, David Reiss  
> <dbreiss at>
> wrote:
>> Sadly 3rd party application for Mathematica sell very poorly--rarely
>> even beginning to recoup the cost to develop them.  But I could do
>> this if there were a couple of hundred users willing to purchase it.
> I'd welcome your thoughts (or anyone's) on _why_ this is the case?
> (I have my own ideas, but reality checks are always useful.)

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