This list is not necessarily naming the best freeware of all time but rather the freeware that has been most influential. Although, in some cases, both apply.
First released in 2003 and eventually acquired by Microsoft in 2011, Skype has provided a communication platform that had previously only been conjectured by science fiction. Maybe it’s a generational thing, but the ability to video chat with anyone anywhere in the world (and for free) still seems surreal to me.
Perhaps because my teenage years were through the 60s when Star Trek was one of the most popular shows on TV and we teenagers marveled at the technology – little did we know.
I remember way back in 2004 when Sandboxie was first released and the then freeware guru, Ian (Gizmo) Richards, introduced this new and innovative freeware via his weekly newsletter. In those days, terms such as “sandboxing” and “isolation techniques” were unheard of.
Sandboxing (or the isolation technique) has now become well known as one of the most secure mechanisms to protect users and their systems, and Sandboxie provided the groundwork. Sandboxie remains one of my favorite free security programs to this very day and is a part of all my systems.
Even though my preference in image viewers is for FastStone, IrfanView deserves its spot on the list for being the very first of its kind. IrfanView was the first of this type of software to expand beyond a mere image viewer by incorporating multiple functions/features to cover the full gamut of image viewing, editing, converting, organizing, etc.
Remarkably, IrfanView’s initial release was way back in 1996, followed by FastStone Image Viewer in 2004 and, to this day, neither has been surpassed.
Spybot – Search & Destroy
Some of you may not have heard of Spybot – Search & Destroy, but this on-demand spyware and adware removal tool was the first of its kind and the only such software available during the early 2000s. First released in 2000, and as the only software of this type available at the time, Spybot – Search & Destroy was once pretty much ubiquitous throughout users’ systems.
Much of Spybot’s protection was centered around Internet Explorer which, at the time, was the dominant browser. However, with the decline of Internet Explorer, Spybot suffered exponentially and fell out of favor. It has since been updated to meet modern expectations and regained some degree of popularity. Regardless, Spybot was the ground-breaker for the malware removal tools we know and use today.
Most would be aware of just how inadequately Windows natively deals with uninstalling software. First released in 2007, Revo Uninstaller changed the entire uninstaller paradigm, and its immediate popularity led to today’s plethora of third-party tools that, thankfully, do a much better job of uninstalling software than Windows has ever been capable of.
Revo’s free edition initially only recognized and worked with 32-bit applications but, following the rise in popularity of alternative free uninstallers, Revo eventually added support for 64-bit applications. Personally, I am a fan of the much more recent Hibit Uninstaller, but Revo remains an excellent choice and deserves its spot in this list as the forerunner in the genre.
NOTE: I am not 100% certain that Revo was the first uninstaller of its kind but working from memory only, I am pretty sure it was.
We all know that Windows (and some installed software) have a tendency to accumulate junk files at a somewhat alarming rate. The original “Crap Cleaner”, first released in 2003, was gratefully received by millions of users as a free alternative to the Windows native cleanup tool which has always been inadequate.
Today, CCleaner has well and truly been surpassed by more effective free alternatives, including PrivaZer and Wise Disk Cleaner. However, Piriform (the original developer) has to be recognized for its foresight in being the first to identify the need and provide a free alternative solution.
As I mentioned in the intro, this list does not necessarily represent a “best of”. In fact, there are a couple of applications that I would definitely not recommend because they have now been well and truly surpassed by superior alternatives. However, all have been pioneers in their respective genres, the first of their kind, and that is the primary consideration.
This was all off the top of my head and I’m sure I could have missed something. Let us know your picks in the comments.