Many years ago, when the widespread ownership and use of PCs began increasing dramatically, most computer applications were purchased in software retail stores, such as the now-defunct Egghead. The buyer would typically pay anywhere from $50 to several hundred dollars, just to obtain a single executable program and its supplemental files, stored on one or more diskettes. At least one printed manual would be included, ostensibly to explain the application's usage, but often seemingly just to fill the box and justify the high price.
The situation is quite different nowadays, with diskettes going the way of dodo birds, and software retail stores going the way of, well, diskettes. Almost all application development companies sell their products directly to the public, over the Internet, by offering a free download of the trial version, which can be easily "unlocked" and thus converted into a full working version with the use of an alphanumeric key, sold to the buyer online. The prices for these programs have declined, even before adjusting for inflation, because the vendors have been able to reduce their costs of distribution, and bypass the egghead, er, middleman.
These declining prices for purchasing computer applications illustrate the principle that not all applications have to be expensive, or even cost any money at all. Nowadays, more programmers are creating new programs and offering them in the form of freeware (no price whatsoever), adware (ad-supported), or shareware (the user is expected to pay a small fee only if he or she continues using the program). In addition, as more programmers get involved in open source projects, there is not only a growing number and variety of free and low-cost applications, but increasing interest within the technical community for developing free applications. This enthusiasm will fuel future development of even better programs.
As is to be expected, the most convenient way for these developers to "market" their programs to the world is the Internet. In this article, I will explore a number of websites devoted to making such programs available for download, and serving as forums for users to review those products.
Freeware and Shareware Sites
The most well-known shareware websites tend to have the largest selections. Without a doubt, the easiest such Web addresses to remember are Download.com and Shareware.com. They are both owned by CNet, and have the same contents, since the latter address is merely a portal to the former, but with a very different user interface. Download.com groups their offerings into 12 major categories, including Audio, Internet, Games, and Business. Within each category, programs are grouped by subcategory. This makes it easier to compare all available programs of a particular type.
Download.com has several features to help you in determining which programs are be best suited to meet your needs. Each subcategory contains a list of the top five most popular programs within that category (and a link to look further down the list) and the top five programs receiving the highest number of user comments (which I will discuss in a moment). If you know the name of the program you are looking for, or know at least one word within its title, then you can use the search facility, which allows you to search within the current category, within Windows programs only, within Download.com, throughout all of CNet, or throughout the entire Internet.
Once you have identified one or more programs whose descriptions sound promising, you should read the comments posted by other users who have already tried those particular programs. While the less popular programs may have only a handful of comments, the more heavily downloaded programs can have several thousand comments. You of course do not have to read all of them to get a sense of what other people think of the programs, because the average rating (using a five-star rating system) is shown for each program. Admittedly, many of the user comments are unintelligible or otherwise useless, but these are usually offset by detailed critiques in which previous guinea pigs, er, users describe the weaknesses of and problems caused by the program in question.
There are other popular freeware and shareware sites: TUCOWS, which is less Windows-centric than Download.com; Nonags and TuDogs, which focus more on freeware; FilePlanet, which emphasizes game software; and WinDrivers.com, which is a good place to start when seeking device drivers for a Windows installation.
Even though freeware may be free, that does not mean that it has no costs. Some costs are unavoidable, such as the time required for downloading, installing, and trying out the programs. There could be additional costs, depending upon the quality of the software itself, and its installer. Hidden costs will quickly become quite visible if the software accidentally or intentionally (in the form of a Trojan horse) damages your operating system, partition, or device drivers. As always, use effective and up-to-date antivirus software.
Moreover, if you are running Windows or Linux, you can minimize future headaches and wasted time by using a separate partition for trying out the programs. This partition would be completely separate from your main partition — the one you depend upon on a daily basis, and which you cannot afford to get damaged by poorly written or malicious programs. (I did not use the term "primary partition", since that has a specific meaning in Windows.)
This test partition would serve as a virtual sandbox, in which any new and untested applications could be installed, to see if they cause any harm, or even function as advertised. This test partition would also be the ideal place to install software that you intend to use only once, or just a few times, or perhaps frequently but only for a limited period of time (such as tax software, assuming the IRS does not demand an encore performance).
You could allow this test partition to accumulate all sorts of temporary programs, and then when one of them makes the partition inoperable (such as corrupting the Windows Registry), or the partition simply fills up with programs no longer needed, you could reformat the partition and reinstall Windows. This would be safer and more reliable than uninstalling each application individually and hoping that doing so does not cause the deletion of critical files needed by other programs. Even though installers have gotten better over the years in terms of removing new files and Registry entries, many of them still leave behind unneeded files, directories, and Registry entries. These leftovers consume disk space, and make troubleshooting other programs more difficult and time-consuming.
These warnings should not dissuade you from trying free and low-cost programs. In general, the quality of these offerings just keeps getting better, and test the old saying that there is no such thing as a free lunch. For some freeware, you get what you pay for; but in other cases, you will be singing the praises of freeware and shareware.