What is Freeware – what is not?

freewareLast week I published an article regarding my freeware reviews, you can catch up with that article here: Freeware Reviews: The do’s and don’ts. The article elicited a couple of interesting comments regarding what actually constitutes freeware these days. One reader mentioned that “The definition of ‘FREEware’ is no longer what it used to be” and another suggested to “include a refresher of just exactly what Freeware means and how it distances itself from Freeware with ads and those who ask for contributions, etc“. So, what follows is my take on today’s freeware, what constitutes freeware, and what does not.

Wikipedia defines freeware thus: Freeware (portmanteau of “free” and “software”) is software that is available for use at no monetary cost or for an optional fee, but usually (although not necessarily) closed source with one or more restricted usage rights.

My own definition is as follows: Software (generally closed source) which can be downloaded and used completely free of charge and without limitations.

There is little doubt that the original intent, or spirit, behind the freeware movement has been seriously corrupted over the years. These days, so-called freeware is often merely a vessel used to promote premium (or payed for) versions. Or comes loaded with parasitic extras such as advertizing modules and toolbars, a practice which has become all too common place. However, I do not believe that the actual definition of freeware has changed, just that the term is now often used far to loosely.

For example, the free versions in a ‘fremium’ distribution model do not, in my opinion, constitute freeware. These free versions almost inevitably include limitations, usually missing or disabled features, and are often released with the specific purpose of enticing users to cough up for the full-featured premium edition. These are “free” versions, not freeware.

Adware, Donationware, Foistware, Nagware, etc.

bundlingThese are all derivative terms used to indicate some additional element, but are they still essentially freeware? In my opinion, and in most cases, yes. They may not be good freeware, or desirable freeware, but they are freeware nonetheless. I find the term “donationware” a tad unfair in particular. I see no harm in a developer requesting donations to assist with further development and, ultimately, keep the software free.  Of course, as with most things, there are always degrees. If a freeware product is constantly initiating popups requesting a donation, does that then make it “nagware”?

There are similar degrees involved with the term “adware”. Does a single ad placed unobtrusively in a freeware’s main interface constitute adware? Some might say yes, others might say no. The amount of ads, the frequency, the point where they become invasive or disruptive is often purely subjective. So, who can judge at exactly what point something should be labeled “adware”?

These days, any discussion involving freeware is almost certain to also include references to advertizing modules, toolbars, and bundling in general. The ubiquitous toolbars in particular have become a huge problem for freeware fans everywhere. Again, it is all a matter of degrees. Provided the bundling is benign and totally transparent with clearly defined options to decline, I don’t see a huge problem. Surely at some point the end user must take some responsibility for his or her own actions… it’s not as if there haven’t been enough warnings. Two sayings come to mind, caveat emptor – (let the buyer beware) and be prepared – (boy scout motto).

I am not for one minute condoning these practices, what I am saying is they are obviously here to stay, they are not going away anytime soon. Complaining about the situation is not productive, learning how to deal with it is.

Best Practices to Help Avoid Unwanted Bundling, Toolbars, etc.

downloads freewarebb  Of course, there is no defense against those products which go ahead and install the extras anyway, or install the extras without prior notice or an option to decline. These are just very bad practices and difficult to avoid… but not impossible. Here are some of the methods you can utilize to help avoid these bad freewares and unwanted extras in general:

  • Use your search engine to check a software’s reputation: Look for reviews, user reviews in particular. Look for recommendations from reputable sources, such as DCT.
  • Visit the software’s home page: Read through all the information included on the site. Look for genuine testimonials – genuine testimonials will usually be clickable, leading to an original source.
  • Download from a reputable/reliable source: Download  direct from the developer where possible. Avoid CNET.download.com and other sites which show scant regard for users’ safety. I recommend MajorGeeks, FreewareBB, and FileHippo as generally reliable external sources.
  • Scan the downloaded file through Virus Total: Virus Total scans files through multiple anti-virus engines, up to 48. Virus Total scans primarily for malware but will often also flag toolbars and other PUPs (Potentially Unwanted Programs).
  • Carefully monitor each and every installation: Do not just click on through an installation, pause and check the information included in each screen.
  • Install first in a virtual environment: The term “virtual environment” tends to scare off many users, it should not. Toolwiz TimeFreeze is a very simple and easy to use freeware, check out my review here: TimeFreeze: easily create a secure virtual environment.
  • Create a System Restore Point prior to installation: System Restore has improved dramatically from Vista through Windows 7 and 8… use it! Some products automatically create a restore point prior to installation, many don’t. Do not rely on the software, manually create you own system restore point prior to commencing any installation.

Bottom line, freeware today is certainly not what it used to be. More and more developers, big and small, are seeking more productive and beneficial ways to monetize their efforts. I can’t say that, in many cases, I can blame them. Perhaps we’ve been spoiled, perhaps our expectations of something for nothing in return are misplaced. Bad freeware has always been around and always will be, just seems like there is more around these days than used to be.

When it all comes down to it, we are all indiviuals with different levels of tolerance and acceptance, I don’t believe it’s up to freeware reviewers such as myself to overly categorize products. I adopt a pretty simple philosophy; in most cases, if any unsavory elements are present, I will not review nor recommend the software…. end of story. Occasionally, if I believe the software is of the highest quality and ads are not overly intrusive or aggressive, or any bundling is readily identifiable and avoidable, I will still publish a review. However, those reviews will ALWAYS include a warning by way of cautionary explanation.

Regardless, if it wasn’t for freeware, we’d all likely be a heck of a lot poorer.

Cheers… Jim

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About the Author

Jim Hillier

Jim is the resident freeware aficionado at DCT. A computer veteran with 30+ years experience who first started writing about computers and tech back in the days when freeware was actually free. His first computer was a TRS-80 in the 1980s, he progressed through the Commodore series of computers before moving to PCs in the 1990s. Now retired (aka an old geezer), Jim retains his passion for all things tech and still enjoys building and repairing computers for a select clientele... as well as writing for DCT, of course.

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