What Happened To Download.com? The Rise And Fall Of download.com

Ethan
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DOWNLOAD.COM

Remember download.com? Back in the 2000s and even early 2010s, download.com was the place to go to download any software you wanted. Whether you were looking for anti-virus software, WinRar, Minecraft, or another downloading client like uTorrent, there was a good chance that you would find it on download.com. And if you couldn’t, you’d probably switch over to Softonic, snapfiles, or Softpedia to look for the same software. 

Whatever Happened To Download.com?


But, over the years, download.com has largely fallen out of favor. In fact, it’s only been downhill for download.com since 2010, and for nearly a decade now, they’ve been pulling in just 1% of their peak traffic. As such, a lot of people reading this article might not even know what download.com is. 


It’s easy to write off download.com as just something popular during another era. And an era in which people weren’t as tech-savvy and relied on a singular site to download all the software they needed. But, download.com is actually representative of a much larger trend within the software world: the rise and fall of centralized software distribution for PCs. 


What’s ironic is that download.com began its downfall just as the iOS app store and Google Play Store came out. So, just as smartphones were becoming more centralized, PCs were becoming more decentralized. 


Now, you might be inclined to say that the only reason that download.com couldn’t survive was because it was not from a big tech company like Apple Google, or Microsoft. But, that’s not exactly true because Microsoft and Apple have their own desktop app stores: the Microsoft Store and the Mac App Store. 


But, unless you’re trying to download Xcode or something, no one really uses these. I mean, did you even know that YouTube and Netflix have their own desktop apps on the Microsoft Store? And even if you did, do you actually use these apps on your PC, obviously Xbox doesn’t count? 


For the vast majority of you, the answer is probably no. So, what happened to download.com and why are centralized software repos not able to thrive on desktop? 


GOLDEN TIMING

Taking a look back, the story of download.com takes us all the way back to early 1996 which is almost 30 years ago at this point. The website was launched by CNET or “Computer Network” which at this point was just a small startup. 


The vision for download.com was straightforward. Create an easy-to-use directory that allows people to download and rate software for both Windows and Mac. And by far the best decision that CNET made with this website was calling it download.com. 


Looking back, I can’t remember exactly how I came across this website but it wasn’t through a Google search or a friend telling me about it. I think I just looked up download.com when I was trying to download some game or software and the website just happened to have it, and I think I pretty much used it ever since. 


I suspect that a lot of first-time computer and internet users had a similar experience which just goes to show how important a brand name can be. The name download.com was just so intuitive that the name itself drove traffic and growth to the website which brings us to the first key point behind download.com’s success: most computer users weren’t tech-savvy back in the day. 


Launching a website like this today would go nowhere because no one would be naive enough to look up download.com. And even if they somehow came across the website on Google, they’d probably just be sketched out by the domain. 


CNET built upon this initial velocity by expanding to other categories of downloads. For example, in 2004, download.com started supporting music downloads after mp3.com was taken down. And in 2005, they started supporting video streaming for movies, shows, animations, sports, and everything else. 


Before you knew it, download.com would become one of the most popular websites on the planet attracting over 100 million visitors every single year. This isn’t to say that download.com was perfect though. They actually had plenty of annoying quirks, specifically bloatware. 


Initially, bloatware had more to do with the software publishers themselves as opposed to download.com, but eventually, download.com would get involved as well. For starters, you would see a bunch of ads with massive download buttons for something completely different than what you were looking for. 


CNET would also eventually start shipping their own installer for downloads which is what you would be downloading if you clicked the big green download button. The direct download link was just a small link underneath the big button. 


This wouldn’t be too bad if the CNET installer was not trying to push bloatware itself but that’s exactly what it was trying to do, and it was quite misleading too. For example, if you were trying to download Mangofile through the installer, you’d first be greeted by a page that looks like this. 


download.com Installer prompt


At first glance, it seems like the terms of service for Mangofile with a checkbox, but the checkbox is actually just a trick to get you to download the SweetPacks toolbar. If you make it past that page, you’re greeted with another page that looks like the download.com terms of service. 


download.com terms of service


But the accept button doesn’t agree to the TOS, it actually installs the DefaultTab Search Bar onto your computer. It doesn’t stop right there either. If you make it past that page, you get yet another prompt to seemingly accept terms of service, but this is just a ploy to get you to download Wajam. 


bloatwares in download.com softweres


Something else to note is that even if you’re super careful and decline all of these offers, the installer will sometimes install the crapware anyway. And let’s just say that it’s quite a pain to uninstall this trash because the software is usually maliciously designed to be hard to uninstall. 


Simply going to the Windows program manager and clicking uninstall usually won't do anything. Instead, you have to go to program files and delete the directory and all associated files which are usually scattered all over the place. 


ot of people’s computers used to look like this screenshot


No wonder a lot of people’s computers used to look like this. But anyway, Apple and Microsoft were watching all of this play out from the sidelines, and eventually, they would decide to strike. 


SAAS TAKES OVER

On January 6, 2011, Apple launched the Mac App Store, and soon after on October 26, 2012, Microsoft launched the Microsoft Store. The strategy behind these stores was clear. Apple and Google have achieved massive success with the iOS app store and Google Play Store. 


And it was obvious that desktop alternatives like download.com and Softonic were rotting from the inside out. So, the obvious play was to introduce a first-party store for both Windows and Mac. This should’ve largely eliminated all of the bloatware and malware that was floating around while also giving Apple and Microsoft more control over their platforms. 


It seemed like a win-win scenario but these stores didn’t exactly take off. What’s more perplexing was that interest in websites like download.com was also falling off a cliff, so where was all of this traffic going instead? 


Well, this can largely be explained by the evolving desktop software space, and more specifically SAAS or software as a service. Back in the download.com days, a lot of software was just written by enthusiasts or a small group of people. 


Users weren’t exactly willing to pay for software unless it was like Microsoft Office or Adobe Photoshop. So, most programs like WinRar and uTorrent were forced to rely on some sort of freemium model supported by ads. 


If these programs became really popular, the creators could earn millions or even tens of millions, but the billions and tens of billions were completely out of the question until the 2010s. This was really the pivot point for computers. Computers transitioned from something that people just messed around with at home to something that almost everyone needed for work and school. 


Adobe and Microsoft saw this trend and they decided to cash in. They figured that they could make a lot more money if they charged a subscription fee for their software instead of a one-time licensing fee. And who could blame them? I mean, just take a look at their net income over the past decade. 


SAAS market size graph from 2022-2032


This precedent set by Adobe and Microsoft would give rise to a whole new multi-hundred billion dollar industry: SAAS, which completely changed the game. Most software was no longer coming from nerds living in their mom’s basement but rather from shrewd businessmen with billion-dollar visions. 


As such, the last thing they wanted to do was list their software on download.com. Listing the software on the Mac store and Microsoft store would’ve been fine, but it wasn’t ideal either. After all, your listing would be limited to a couple of pictures and a few descriptions. 


Plus, it wasn’t like these stores were all that popular in the first place, so these SAAS companies decided to take matters into their own hands. They created beautiful websites and landing pages that were not only professional but way more optimized for conversions than some listing on the Mac App Store could ever be. 


Pretty soon, this became the standard for any software company paid or free. I mean, just think about any software that you use daily. Whether it’s Zoom Discord, Microsoft Office, or the Adobe Suite, they all have killer landing pages and conversion channels. But this domination of SAAS only tells half the story because there was a much bigger trend at play as well. 



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THE DEATH OF DOWNLOAD.COM

Taking a more macro perspective, I would argue that the death of download.com has less to do with the rise of SAAS and more to do with the death of downloading in general. Over the years, it’s become clear that people prefer to stream all forms of media whether it’s music, podcasts, movies, TV shows, or whatever else. 


As for sharing files, well Google Drive takes care of all the sharing needs that any average person would ever need. In fact, I would even argue that the average person doesn’t need to download any software or media. This is precisely why products like the Chromebook are so successful. 


People can accomplish everything they need over the web whether that’s answering emails, researching, sharing files, putting together presentations, writing, consuming media, everything. Even more hardcore users who still download stuff don’t need to do it all that often. 


It’s basically just a one-time thing at this point. These programs will usually just auto-update themselves when necessary and you never have to worry about them again. Something else to note is that modern websites are basically software. 


The most notable example of this is the Google Office suite which is basically an online version of Microsoft Office, but you could make this argument with really any website. YouTube.com is really just software that lets you discover and watch an infinite amount of video entertainment. 


Amazon.com is really just software that lets you discover an infinite amount of products. Gmail.com is really just software that lets you contact basically anyone in the world. And the beauty of all this software is that it doesn’t need to be downloaded through download.com or the Microsoft store. 


All of this software lives on the cloud and is constantly being updated and refined without you having to do anything. The next time you visit these websites, they’re just magically updated. Now, I do want to note that this modern trend has basically rendered computers useless to most people without an internet connection. But, with the internet basically becoming a utility at this point, I don’t think anyone really minds. 



Wrapping Up

In the end, download.com was a website that thrived due to its timing. Its intuitive name and the need to download everything made the website a hit with early computer users. But, with the rise of SAAS companies, streaming, and websites that are basically software, people just have no need to download anything anymore. And that’s what happened to download.com. 

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