people/secret.jpgHalf of the fun of using the Internet is finding great inexpensive or free software programs.  The Internet is filled with programs of this type, but you have to know what you are looking for and understand the different types of programs. Who doesn’t like a freebie? There are plenty of free programs available but it is sometimes difficult to determine just what kind of program you are dealing with.

Free software comes in three different flavors:

1.      Public Domain Software - This is a program that you can copy freely without any fee involved. It has no copyright restrictions, so you can copy, modify, and even sell it.
2.      Freeware - This is another type of free software. You can copy it and use it freely, but it is copyrighted so you cannot sell it as your own.
3.      Beta Software - This is another type of software that is essentially free, but it has strings attached. When a company develops a new program or a new version of an old program, it goes through a period of testing.  The first testing phase, called alpha testing, is done in house. During this phase the software developers and others use the program within their company.  They make changes and improvements. Then the program is released for testing in the real world.  This is called beta testing. During beta testing the program is given to a certain number of everyday computer users, who will help the company find the bugs (problems with the program) and will report the bugs to the company. With the popularity of the Internet, many companies have opened their beta testing to anyone who would like to try the program. Beware! While some beta software is stable, other beta programs are bug-infested.  Beta software can have a devastating effect on your computer system.  It is a good rule of thumb to stay away from all beta software unless you are experienced at repairing your computer’s inner workings.

Shareware is probably the most common type of software that is available for downloading from the Internet. Shareware can best be described as “try before you buy” software. Like freeware, shareware is copyrighted. You can copy it and use it on a trial basis. However, if you want to keep on using shareware after the trial period, which is usually 30 days, you are expected to pay for it.

To try a shareware program, you just download it from the Internet. (If you aren’t yet comfortable with the process of downloading software, read my How-To on Downloading Software. )

There are several different types of shareware programs.  First, there is that type that is a complete program. You can try it and can actually keep using it forever.  However, the author of the program asks that you register it and pay a fee.  The fee is usually less than a shrink-wrapped program that you find on a store shelf. The author of the software relies completely on your honesty to pay for the program.

The second type of shareware program is one that is fully functioning for a certain period of time (usually 30 days).  After the time has elapsed and you have not paid your fee, the program gives you gentle payment reminders. Whenever you use the program, a small pop-up window called a nag screen will appear reminding you to pay. Or a scrolling bar with a payment reminder will appear on your screen.  In most cases these nagging reminders become so aggravating that you are forced to either pay the fee or stop using the program.

The third type of shareware program is also fully functioning for a set period of time.  At the end of that time period, the program simply stops working. 

When you download a shareware program, you will usually find instructions for registering your software and paying the fee. Once you register and pay for the program, you are ordinarily e-mailed or sent a special code, called a key that unlocks the software to stop the nag screens or to make it functional again.

There are many advantages to shareware:

1.      It is little risk.  If you don’t like it, just uninstall it.
2.      Since the developer does not have to pay to package or promote the software, the cost is often much lower than store-bought software.
3.      The delivery is instant.
4.      There is no shipping cost.
5.      Low overhead costs enable small developers who may create superior products to enter the playing field.
6.      It encourages innovation.

There are also disadvantages:

1.      It is difficult to determine which products are good ones.  The “try before you buy” can become a time-consuming project.
2.      It is not always easy to uninstall these programs when you decide you don’t want them. Some come with uninstall programs; other do not.
3.      Even honest users are tempted to simply forget about making the payment.

Programs of this type often come with a built-in help function and sometimes come with a manual that you can print out.  In other cases, the manual is available with your registration, although there may be an extra fee involved.

You will also find another type of program on the Internet, called a demo program. These may be retail-type programs like those that you would find in a computer store.  Like some shareware, they may be fully functioning programs that are only usable for a certain period of time. They may also be programs that seem complete but have disabled features. For example, a word processing program may seem fully functioning, yet the printing capabilities will be disabled.  This will allow you to try the program, but force you to purchase the full version if you want to print.

All of these various types of programs are found throughout the Internet.  If you know the manufacturer’s Web address, you can go directly to their site to download the software. You can also visit some of the Web sites that have become download sites.  One of the most popular of these is called Tucows.  This site has a great collection of software and provides local Tucows sites, which allow you to choose a download site from within your geographic area generally resulting in faster downloads.

Two of my other favorites are the ZD Net and PC World. Both of these sites have extensive search engines to help you find the software that you are looking for.  They also use a rating system that can help you determine just how good the software really is.

Happy downloading!