Why is Free Software Free?

24 02 2009

Nothing is FREE without a reason. While some things do sometimes, why not check this out.
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THESE days, when few want to spend money on anything unnecessary, the lure of free software is greater than ever. Software makers are aware of this, and as a consequence, there’s more free software available now than ever before. But how can you trust free software? How can companies give away software for free? How do you know whether a program that you download might contain a virus or be a phishing scam? Read on for some answers.

I’m always suspicious of free software. It costs money or time to develop software, so how can companies give it away for free, especially if the software is complex and requires constant maintenance, like antivirus software? The distribution of free software is actually part of a well-established and potentially profitable business model. If a company is trying to launch a product into an already crowded market, for example, it might decide that the best way to gain market share and brand recognition is to give away the software for a period of time.

This is the tact taken, for example, by antivirus maker Comodo (http://www.comodo.com), which has come on strong of late with lots of free security products. It’s a strategy that has paid off in a big way for Mozilla’s Firefox web browser, too, which is now one of the leading web browsers and makes good money from associations with Google and other companies.

In short, there’s always a market for free products, and gaining market share is a software product’s strongest asset. With market share, opportunities for making money in ways other than by selling copies of the software program itself increase exponentially. Revenue from advertisements, consulting, and training can often be more than enough to offset the potential revenue lost by trying to make a fee-based program popular in a crowded field. In fact, the software world has become so dominated by a few major players that the best hope a newcomer has to compete against the software behemoths is either to have a product that no one else has thought of or to adopt some type of free distribution model in order to gain market share.

So it should help your sense of security to know the profit motive behind the distribution of most free software. But you are justified in being suspicious of certain types of free software in general. Purveyors of viruses and phishing scams regularly try to lure unsuspecting consumers into downloading malicious software by promoting bogus antivirus and anti-spyware software through pop-up ads on the web and through spam e-mail messages. These criminals, of course, are attempting to exploit the consumer’s trust, built up through the efforts of legitimate companies, that reliable, free antivirus and anti-spyware software exists.

The bogus anti-spyware products have become so numerous and so nefarious that a website called Spyware Warrior (http://www.spywarewarrior.com/rogue_anti-spyware.htm) has been erected to identify them and warn users away. Stick with the well- known makers of free antivirus products — Avast, Avira, and AVG are the most well-established. Occasionally, a developer will write a piece of software for herself and then distribute it to the world on her web site in an act of generosity or in the spirit of contribution to a greater cause. These may be the only instances of free software that have no obvious profit motive attached.

What are some good sources of free software? There are plenty of trustworthy sources of free software. You might start with the major manufacturers of software that you’ve already purchased. Microsoft, for instance, offers a host of free software programs to those who have purchased Windows. You’ll find them by browsing Microsoft’s downloads section (http://www.microsoft.com/downloads).

Sometimes well-known software companies retire versions of a product but make those older versions available for free. You’ll find plenty of such offerings at the web site OldVersion.com (http://www.oldversion.com). Then there are established sites that distribute tested and totally free software. These sites include The Free Site (http://www.thefreesite.com), NoNags (http://www.nonags.com) and SourceForge (http://sourceforge.net).

These days, Google is a source for a plethora of very good, free software. Check Google Labs (http://labs.google.com) frequently. While there’s ultimately a profit motive behind many of the software programs distributed on these sites, even if it’s primarily marketing related, that doesn’t mean the products themselves can’t be quite useful to you for some time to come.

How can I be sure that free software does not contain a virus or spyware? You’ll need to combine a good antivirus program with some detective work on the Internet. Before you even think of downloading some software from a company you’ve never heard of, do a bit of digging to find out whether it’s a known conveyor of spyware, adware, or a virus. Chances are, if it’s an offender, it’s been reported and will show up in a web search.

If the software passes that smell test, download it, but be sure you have your antivirus software installed and running. After downloading it, right-click the file or files you downloaded and run a virus check on just those files. Most antivirus software today installs a file manager plug-in that makes the inspection of specific files a breeze. – DPA


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