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How (and why) to give software as a gift this holiday season

When it comes to gift giving, we tend to have a tangibility bias. The overwhelming majority of things we buy for each other during the holidays is physical stuff that you can actually touch, feel, wrap in decorative paper, and place under a tree. But this bias toward physical gifts has a downside that’s becoming increasingly difficult to ignore: It creates an enormous amount of waste. That’s why this year (and into the foreseeable future) we should all consider giving software as a gift.

Environmental concerns aren’t the only reason, either. Whether it’s mobile apps, desktop programs, or something else entirely, many of us use and interact with software for several hours each day, so if you choose your gift wisely, the right software can make a big difference in your giftee’s life. And perhaps best of all, software can be delivered digitally — so it’s a great last-minute gift option if you’ve been procrastinating.

App screen on the Google Pixel 6 Pro.
Andy Boxall/Digital Trends

The only problem, of course, is that giving software as a gift isn’t particularly straightforward anymore. It used to be, back when everything came on floppy discs and CDs, but now that most software is purchased and delivered digitally over the internet, the process is often somewhat convoluted and unintuitive.

This article is an attempt to help with that. Below you’ll find a list of general-purpose tips, tricks, and techniques that will hopefully help you navigate the murky waters of software gifting, cut down on the number of physical gifts you give each year, and do the planet (and your friends and family) a favor. Here’s how to gift software in 2021.

Note: This article doesn’t discuss the buying and giving of video games, which do technically fall under the umbrella of software, but are notably different from most other forms of software, as they are generally quite simple and straightforward to buy as gifts — both physically and digitally.

Accept and embrace that it’s a messy process

Unfortunately, there isn’t a one-size-fits-all solution for buying software and giving it to somebody else. There is no all-in-one shop that sells every program you could want, and while there are a few big marketplaces like the Apple App Store and Google Play that can often make things easier, you might have to venture outside the bounds of an online app store to find what you need.

Ultimately, where you purchase the software, how it’s delivered, and the ease of the overall process is determined by a broad range of different factors, so you’ll need to be flexible and consider multiple avenues before you make your purchase. In other words, just be prepared to sink some time into research and due diligence.

Do some basic recon

This should go without saying, but before you buy anything, you should do your best to figure out what kinds of software your giftee might be interested in. What are their hobbies, passions, and aspirations? Can software help with those things? What programs do they already have access to at work or school? If you’re not confident enough to take a big swing and buy them an unfamiliar program that they may or may not like, it’s often a safer route to just find out what software they already use and purchase a “pro” or “premium” version that offers additional functionality.

Man holding binoculars up to his face.
Andy Andrews / Getty

Once you’ve got a general idea of what software you might buy, the next step is to determine a few key things about your giftee. What devices do they use? iPhone? Android? Windows? Mac? What operating system are they on? Do they meet the minimum system requirements of the software you’re hoping to give? Some of these questions will be easier to answer than others, but they’re important to think about before you proceed. The last thing you want to do is buy a program that your giftee can’t use due to technical incompatibilities.

When in doubt, it never hurts to just ask your giftee for any details you can’t determine on your own — or even just ask them directly what they want.

Try the developer website first

If you’ve zeroed in on the app or program that you’re interested in buying and giving as a gift, the first thing you should do is visit the developer’s website and see if they have a gifting option. Many companies allow you to purchase a redemption code for their software, which you can then give to your giftee.

This method is nice, because it gives you an extra measure of specificity in giving your gift. Instead of just giving a generic gift card that could be used for anything, you’re giving a particular software application that you chose for a reason, which makes the gift a bit more personal.

The downside of this method is that it’s also a bit more risky. If you buy a program that your recipient doesn’t want or can’t use for whatever reason, then your only recourse is to try to get a refund. If you want to hedge your bet, use the next method.

If all else fails, just get a gift card

If you can’t directly buy an application as a gift, then your next best option is the indirect route: Buy a gift card to the app store/marketplace where your software can be purchased. Unfortunately, this method isn’t as specific (you’ll have to tell the gift card recipient which software you had in mind), but the upside is that it’s extremely easy and allows your giftee to buy a broad range of other applications if your intended program isn’t of interest.

A hand reaching or a Google Play gift card on a shelf.

If you’re buying iOS or Mac software, an Apple gift card will do the trick. For Android and Chromebook users, you can purchase a Google Play card, while Microsoft Store gift cards will cover just about everything Windows-based. If you can’t purchase a gift card directly for a given app store, you might have to resort to buying a prepaid Visa.

To complete the process, just hop on the appropriate app store or marketplace, find your software, and then take note of the price. Next, use the links provided above to purchase a gift card that’s worth enough to cover the cost of the software. That’s it!

Suggestions and considerations:

When you purchase a gift card online, you’ll generally be given a choice between digital and physical delivery. If you choose the latter option, a small plastic gift card will be mailed to you and arrive after a few business days. If you choose the digital option, a redemption code will be emailed to you and arrive in the blink of an eye — all while avoiding the use of disposable plastic for storage or fossil fuel for transport. As such, we highly recommend choosing digital delivery. It’s better in almost every way.

If you’re giving a gift card and want a splashy way to signal what program you had in mind (outside just saying it to them verbally), we recommend printing out a custom QR code that, when scanned, will bring them to the download page of the product. Slip this code into a greeting card, and you’re all set. It’s not quite as exciting as tearing a bunch of wrapping paper off of a gift, but it does bring back an element of surprise that’s often lost when your gift is digital.

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Drew Prindle
Former Digital Trends Contributor
Drew Prindle is an award-winning writer, editor, and storyteller who currently serves as Senior Features Editor for Digital…
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