Is retail really dead? The pros and cons of digital software downloads

A recently released report by software manufacturer Stardock suggests the days of buying software in a box are long gone. Five years ago, Stardock's research showed that 58% of their customers still bought their software in a box at retail, and 24% expected to be still doing so in 2014. The reality was quite different.

By Alex Choros

A recently released report by software manufacturer Stardock suggests the days of buying software in a box are long gone. Five years ago, Stardock's research showed that 58% of their customers still bought their software in a box at retail, and 24% expected to be still doing so in 2014. The reality was quite different – only 6% are still buying software in a box.

Long gone is the time where Harvey Norman had aisles upon aisles of software; these days we're lucky to see even a single shelf. But is this a good thing? We've taken a look at some of the arguments for and against digital software sales.

Pros
Digital distribution gives customers unprecedented access to software. If you want it, you can just buy it. You don't have to rely on a retailer to stock it. This is especially useful when it comes to niche programs. While most retailers now stock Macs, not everyone used to stock Logic Pro, Apple's digital audio work station. Fortunately, buying Logic is a now a quick purchase through the Mac App Store. Even then, Logic is a fairly popular piece of software – the more specialised something is, the harder it is to find.

Digital distribution all means you can buy software whenever you want. JB HiFi and Harvey Norman are closed at midnight – not great when you've got a late night craving for a copy of Office 365.

When you're only selling a download, software is always in stock. You never have to worry about a product being sold out, or missing out. The worst that can happen is a download is too popular, resulting in server downtime and a bit of a wait. But at least you don't need to wait to the next shipment.

No physical packaging is great when it comes to saving space and reducing waste. After all, that Windows box is only going to sit around gathering dust. Better make sure you keep track of all of these CD key emails though.

Cons
One of the biggest concerns around digital software distribution is what happens if the company you've bought a program from goes under? Even if the software isn't being sold anymore, you can always reinstall a program from CD or DVD, but if you're relying on a server to re-download it from, you might be out of luck.

Some software is simply too large for a digital download. One of Native Instruments' flagship products, Komplete 9, is over 120 gigabytes and ships on 12 DVDs. And that's just the basic edition! The Ultimate edition is so large that it ships on an external hard drive! This is especially true when it comes to gaming, Wolfenstein: The New Order was a 44 gigabyte download.

Even if the program you're after isn't a large download, you still need an internet connection to get it, and unfortunately there may be times where, for one reason or another, we're stuck without access. At the same time, most software requires online activation these days, even if it came on a disc.

No physical packaging can have its downsides. It's not a big deal for me, but Charlie likes to keep his software boxes neatly organised so every CD Key and install disc are exactly where they should be.

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