Free software online

from the April 2006 Newsletter
by Rob Zorn

From games and guitar tuners to word processors and accounting packages. If you want to try new software, you can probably download what you need for free online.

The Internet was first developed on the basis of an enthusiasm for freedom and co-operation. There would be no world-wide-web without a corresponding world-wide-willingness to link servers and share information simply for its own sake. But it didn’t take software developers long to realise that it was exactly that aspect of the Internet that provided a ready-made distribution network for their products. By harnessing that spirit of sharing and freedom, these developers could bypass the need for “brick and mortar” storefronts and five-figure advertising budgets. The concept of shareware was born.

Shareware, Freeware, Crippleware?

The collective term “shareware” really refers to a distribution method, rather than to anything peculiar to any software. As the name implies, it’s designed to be downloaded and shared. That’s great for us consumers, but it doesn’t necessarily mean we never have to pay.

In some cases, shareware programs will simply cease to work after a set evaluation period unless you buy. This is known as crippleware. In other cases the software will continue to work, but you will only have access to its most basic functions. This is often referred to as demoware. In order to get the premium functions, you’ll need to pay for an update that will unlock them.

Freeware refers to fully-functioning programs which you can use forever for nothing. Usually, the developer will continue to hold copyright which means you can’t modify the program or on-sell it, but you do get free use, and the developer gets product awareness, reputation, and/or the ability to advertise to you through some built in display function.

Benefits and Dangers of Shareware

The benefits of the shareware system are reasonably obvious. Developers can market and distribute their products all around the world with relative ease, and the more people that use their product, the more they can charge for any advertising that comes with it. Consumers benefit because they can try before they buy, seeing which of the many programs on offer best meets their needs.

Not all shareware is benign, though. One other way a developer has to make money is to bundle spyware into the product’s set-up files. Marketing companies will pay top dollar to have their program stealthily installed at the same time so that it can report home about the user’s online habits. Developers would rather not do this, especially if they value their reputation, but for some, the temptation and monetary rewards are just too good to refuse.

Some of the free stuff you can download is downright malicious and will install auto-diallers on your machine to hijack your dialup connection and get you dialling-up overseas at premium rates. Some will contain viruses or trojans to open up holes in your security that a hacker can exploit. You should download from reputable sites only. If you’re unsure about a product on offer, enter it into Google, and see if there is anything negative written on the web about it.

Free Software Sites

0604tucows.jpg (3326 bytes)Tucows (www.tucows.com): Tucows (an acronym for “The Ultimate Collection of Winsock Software”) has a good reputation and is probably the largest and most well-known site for the dissemination of shareware. Over 40,000 software programs are available in easily searched categories. Programs include games, business and accounting tools, design tools - pretty much anything and everything. The programs are tested and reviewed and each receives a rating of one to five cows. Information about the trial periods and eventual costs of each product are provided beforehand.

Another reliable source for shareware is www.download.com. At sites like these you are more likely to find a worthwhile, safe product that will suit your needs.

Free Browsers

Boutique browsers such as Opera (www.opera.com) and Firefox (www.getfirefox.com ) have been standout champions of the shareware method. Each has positioned itself as a faster, more functional and more secure alternative to the incumbent Internet Explorer. At first Opera made money from an advertising pane in one corner, which rotated advertisements to users. For a payment of about $30US, the adverts would disappear. Free versions of Opera now come without the advertising, and today, both products earn revenue from companies such as Amazon, eBay and Google, by building search features directly into their tool bars.

NZ Shareware Success Story

0604mwpro.jpg (6403 bytes)Christchurch man Nick Bolton became so frustrated with Spam that in 2001 he spent $25,000 of his own money developing his anti-spam tool MailWasher and released it online for free. All he did was put a banner at the top of the program introducing himself (and his cat, Jean-Pierre) and asked for voluntary donations. Around 10 percent of grateful users made donations earning him over $3 million per year by 2003. Even with the rising Kiwi dollar (most purchasers are overseas) Bolton says that he’s still “doing a nice seven figures each year.” His company, Firetrust, now employs 23 people and has offices in both Christchurch and Texas.

The free version of Mailwasher allows you to check your e-mail headers before you download which means you can delete spam and other undesirable stuff safely before it reaches you. You can upgrade to a paid version that has extra features if you like (see www.mailwasher.net).

Games

0604halflife.jpg (6823 bytes)If you’re into shoot-em-ups and fantasy, and you’re wondering how to get more guts and glory out of your computer, there’s a fair bit of free stuff online to get you started. Demos for many of the latest popular games can be downloaded free, but these will often be limited to the lowest levels, and will be missing some features. You generally won’t be able to connect to international servers and play against other players unless you purchase full versions, but if you want to see what you like before you commit, try sites like www.gpdownloads.co.nz, www.gamespot.com or http://half-life2.com/.

Cheap 10 day demos can sometimes be purchased from the Warehouse, which you can then register and pay to upgrade online.

To really play these games seriously against other players around the world, and to download a game quickly, you’re going to need a broadband connection. Some of the downloadable demos are several hundred Megabytes in size!