Finding the catch in 'free' software

Just because you're not forking over any money doesn't mean you're not paying a price for that freeware.

Browsing the Web has become like walking down a carnival sideshow. Everywhere you turn, you're bombarded with come-ons. You know there's a catch to each and every pitch because these barkers are pros at separating you from your money.

The people offering free software and Web services appear to be taking lessons from retired carnies. Their offers are too good to be true—literally. Most of these folks are in business, after all, so they have to make money somehow.

And as they say, the most successful cons are the ones where the victim doesn't even know he or she has been conned at all.

Of course, the purveyors of these "free" services assert that there's nothing underhanded about their method of doing business. Many are up-front about their business model, whether it involves placing ads in their products and services, downloading unrelated browser toolbars along with their updates, charging only organizations who use the software while letting individuals have it for free, or offering only dumbed-down versions of the programs for free and requiring payment for access to all the products' features.

Still, sifting through the "free" claims to find the true price you pay for such products can be daunting. Anyone who has used the Internet for any length of time knows it pays to be skeptical. While there are hundreds—perhaps thousands—of truly free programs and services available on the Web, finding the best of them isn't always easy. And clicking the wrong free-download link can be downright dangerous.

One way to determine whether a program is really free is its use of the Free Software Foundation's GNU General Public License (GPL). The GNU GPL stipulates that the software can be used, copied, and distributed verbatim without limitation, though it cannot be changed. While you can usually get the source code of programs that adhere to the GNU GPL, the license differs somewhat from open-source software.

The Open Source Initiative defines 10 criteria that programs must follow to be considered "open source." Among these are that the software can be redistributed—whether sold or given away—without limitation, and that the source code be distributable as well. Such programs must also allow "modifications and derived works" that can be distributed under the same terms.

SourceForge provides the most comprehensive collection of open-source software for Windows, Linux, and other operating systems. The programs listed on the site are often poorly documented and may be labeled as "projects," so you may not want to pin your business's success on one of them.

In fact, you'll often find more complete reviews of the programs listed on SourceForge by searching for them on Download.com. For example, here's the SourceForge entry for the KeePass Password Safe password-management freeware, and the product's entry on Download.com.

Whose bandwidth is it, anyway?
My biggest beef with software vendors—whether they charge for their products or not—is their cavalier attitude toward our system resources. Microsoft ties up our PCs every second Tuesday of the month with multimegabyte Windows updates. But a more recent example is Apple's latest iTunes and QuickTime update, which comes in at a whopping 101.2MB download. Apple, Microsoft, and other software vendors repeatedly expect me to put my workday on hold and turn my system over to their monster updates.

Apple Software Update dialog
Apple's iTunes + QuickTime updater wants to download more than 100MB of patches in the middle of my workday. Apple

Many antivirus and other security programs let you use them for free but request a donation—sometimes repeatedly. For example, InformAction's popular NoScript add-on for Firefox opens a page after each update that solicits donations.

Other times, the vendor offers a free version of their commercial products, but finding it on the company's site becomes a game of Where's Waldo? If you're looking for AVG Free, you'll find it much faster on Download.com than you would on AVG Technologies' site.

Perhaps the greatest danger when looking for free software is becoming a victim of rogue security programs . This form of malware tricks you into downloading it by promising free protection, and then it claims to have found viruses that aren't actually there. The software holds your system for ransom, requiring that you pay to "remove" the infection that the program itself created.

The best way to avoid such traps is to restrict your software downloads to sites such as Download.com that scan all the files they host for malware prior to offering them for download. Better yet, think twice or even three times before installing any program. Every piece of software you load on your PC comes at a price, even if it's just the time, effort, and bandwidth required to keep it up-to-date so it doesn't become a security weak point.

About the author

    Dennis O'Reilly began writing about workplace technology as an editor for Ziff-Davis' Computer Select, back when CDs were new-fangled, and IBM's PC XT was wowing the crowds at Comdex. He spent more than seven years running PC World's award-winning Here's How section, beginning in 2000. O'Reilly has written about everything from web search to PC security to Microsoft Excel customizations. Along with designing, building, and managing several different web sites, Dennis created the Travel Reference Library, a database of travel guidebook reviews that was converted to the web in 1996 and operated through 2000.

     

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