When Free Doesn’t Mean Free

This guest post is contributed by my Aussie mate, Jim Hillier. Jim is the resident freeware aficionado at Dave’s Computer Tips. 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.


Remember the good old days when the “free” in freeware meant exactly that?

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I started writing about freeware back in the days when Clif Sipe (aka Clif Notes) and Ian (Gizmo) Richards were pretty much the freeware gurus. Those were the halcyon days when innovation was rife and there was always some new and exciting freeware to write about and discuss. When good old Spybot Search & Destroy was pretty much the only antimalware – long before anyone had even heard of Malwarebytes Anti-Malware – and the awful Adobe Acrobat was the ubiquitous PDF reader.

I still vividly recall when Ian Richards first wrote about a new program called “Sandboxie” back in 2004. Sandboxie intrigued me no end and I thought it was the greatest thing since sliced bread… still do. However, back in those days, the concept of an “isolated virtual environment” was pretty much unheard of and trying to explain it, even to experienced users, was no easy chore. Alas, Gizmo’s original Freeware Newsletter is no more and Clif Sipe has long retired to a well-deserved easier life.

Fast forward to today and the freeware scene has changed dramatically. Not only has just about every avenue for freeware innovation been well and truly covered, creating a scarcity of material for freeware writers, but the entire concept of “free” has also taken on a whole new meaning.

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Today, it seems very little is actually free and there is usually some sort of trade off involved  –  limited features, upgrade nag screens, download wrappers, advertising modules, bundled PUPs, toolbars, etc. Writing a freeware review today is as much about the potential safety and bundling issues as the actual program. While I can’t blame developers for seizing the opportunity to monetize all the work involved with developing and maintaining their software, I do wish they would be totally transparent about it, plus perhaps consider a system of opt-in rather than opt-out.

The trend has become so prevalent that it has actually spawned a whole new category of freeware tools – such as Unchecky and  AdwCleaner –  which are specifically designed to help users deal with bundling and PUPs (Potentially Unwanted Programs). A pretty scary indication of just how predominant this practice has become. Even the once pristine Open Source software has been sullied by SourceForge’s flirtation with DevShare, an adware supported download wrapper which was eventually discontinued after SourceForge changed hands in 2016.

There are still developers who remain true to the original spirit of freeware of course. Nir Sofer and his excellent collection of free portable NirSoft tools and utilities readily spring to mind. Unfortunately though, true unadulterated freeware is fast becoming as scarce as rocking horse manure and, sadly, today’s users need to approach all so-called freeware with a heightened sense of “let the downloader beware”.

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2 Comments

Filed under downloads, Freeware, Software, Technicians Advise

2 responses to “When Free Doesn’t Mean Free

  1. clas

    hi bill, nice article by jim. i read both his and your blogs and they are appreciated. i still use sandboxie and hardly ever try a new program. mostly the trust is just gone. its been coming for a few years now and its a sad thing. i always read many reviews of any software that looks interesting and i guess its the sneakyness of developers that has turned me off. we bitch about microsoft but the rest of the developers are also way less than truthful with us about their products.