We all love something for nothing. A bargain, especially if it’s ‘free’ always catches our eye in that ‘hey, I’ve got nothing to lose here, right?’ Way. Free software is plentiful on the Internet – from business tools right through to packages for those taking up astronomy. For anyone on a limited budget, free software gives them access to programs that would normally be well beyond their financial reach. They are also usually developed by like-minded people with the same interests in a particular field, but with a little extra programming experience.
But what of the hidden costs? Free software is great – when it works right. The trouble with the wealth of free software available is that there is no ‘benchmark’ standard. Anyone can put a piece of software out there for everyone else to use without having rigorously tested it for bugs, compatibility or even just to see if the program actually does what it’s supposed to. Free software is a ‘lucky dip’ situation – if you’re lucky, you get a real gem that can enrich your life, make tasks easier and even help run your business more successfully. If you’re unlucky, you end up with a program that can crash your hard drive every time you boot up, hang, mess up your operating system and potentially end up costing you money in the long run. After that initial reaction, you could actually have a lot to lose with free software.
Another problem with freeware is that in the majority of cases, you are not getting the full version of the program. Most freeware is a ‘cut-down’ version of the full package and can also have a limited lifespan (usually 30 days) before the user license runs out. To get the full package you will then have to pay to get the upgrade. This is particularly true for anti-virus packages such as AGV or ZoneAlarm. It also pays to read the terms and conditions very carefully before you click on ‘I agree’ on your registration. What are you actually agreeing to? How are they going to use your data? If you’re not sure, do not agree to anything and have a surf around to see if there’s something a little less restrictive in its terms and conditions that also may be more suitable for your needs. Or save up and buy the full version.
Customer service – an optional extra
One of the largest bugbears of free software is the lack of customer service. With recognized operating systems like Microsoft there are teams of technicians dedicated to sorting out those little bugs and glitches that we all come across from time to time. But with free software the developer may be a corporation or just some bloke in his bedroom who’s come up with a good idea. If that good idea does not work as you want it to, then your only option is to send the guy an email and hope he replies. If it’s been some time since he developed the software, there’s a good chance he’s moved on to other things and you’re left hanging with a piece of freeware that is practically useless, no customer support and little chance of ever getting any kind of answer.
There’s also the ever-present danger of encrypted bugs, trojans, and malware. Whilst the vast majority of people producing freeware would not even contemplate infecting their program with a virus on purpose, a lot of freeware is open source, meaning that people can adapt and change the source code at will. That also includes the less scrupulous who may get some kind of kick in sending out infected programs. The consequences, as we all know, can be devastating.
Freeware will have a major part to play in the development of Net 2.0. As the Internet itself becomes more open source, the future of freeware is assured. After all, even accounting for all the shortcomings of ‘something for nothing’, we all still love a freebie. Thankfully, up to date security protocols can filter out pretty effectively anything that has malicious intent on your precious hard drive. But the problem of customer service is one that will be more difficult to resolve. There are particular websites that specifically try to redress this problem by having a control system in place to ensure that all freeware provided on their site is sourced back to the developer, and that he or she understands their obligation to people using their freeware. But this is self-regulatory and open to ‘interpretation’. Unfortunately, there is always a cost for anything that claims to be ‘free’.