Sometimes the internet still has the capacity to pleasantly surprise - and not just in terms of great technological advances. There’s plenty of very useful – and very powerful - software out there that you can access for free. But is it really free – or will you have to pay something for it?
Early pioneers believed that the internet should be a place for the free exchange of ideas and information. That ideal has wilted somewhat under the combined advance of the law and commerce. However, there is still much on the web that you can access for free – including some very powerful, very helpful software.
What's on offer
First up is ’shareware’. This usually refers to software distributed on an honour system – you use the product, and pay a small fee if you feel it is merited. The fee covers registration, after which you are entitled to some degree of support and updates. Sometimes an added incentive to paying the fee comes in the form of additional features.
There are two other forms of free software out there: ’freeware’ and ’public domain software’.
The key difference is that with the first, the software’s author has decided to retain the copyright. So, although you can use the software without payment, you are still restricted in what you can do with it, including your ability to add it to other software or sell it on. Public domain software, on the other hand, is genuinely free and you can do what you want with it.
’Open source’ approach
But why make software available for free? With shareware, the motive is obvious - developers hope you will like their software enough to register. Some of the internet’s most popular programs, from WinZip to mIRC, are shareware, and their authors have profited handsomely from them.
In addition, an entire strand of web development is based on ’open source’ - a philosophy that advocates placing your wares on the web, in a form that is accessible (and modifiable) by anyone with the skill to do so. It may seem counter-intuitive, but the open source approach can often result in better software than that produced commercially by profit-driven multinationals.
That’s because programmers are competitive. They like puzzles. Give them your solution to a particular problem – and don’t be surprised if it comes back with a couple of bugs (you weren’t even aware of) identified and ironed out.
Use trusted sources
One of the world’s most successful operating systems, and a real alternative to Microsoft, is Linux. It’s free, with word processing, spreadsheet and many more components available as either shareware or freeware versions.
There are some disadvantages to using free software. If it doesn’t work, your chances of finding anyone to complain to, let alone sue, are significantly reduced. Shareware and freeware products are often less well finished than commercially available ones, and come with far less support.
Beware too of downloading programs from any old site. If it doesn’t come from a trusted source, your first inkling that it’s actually a nasty virus may be long after you have done real damage to your PC.
As with everything on the net - be careful, but not paranoid.