When free isn’t Free

Mockup of the Apollo Spacecraft Guidance computer I recently built

Mockup of the Apollo Spacecraft Guidance computer I recently built, for fun and education.

Everybody wants to get paid for the effort they put into something. Sometimes, when it’s a hobby, the payoff is just making something beautiful, functional, or cool. Sometimes it’s a great feeling of accomplishment, or it’s educational. But often, a software developer wants cash, because, after all, he needs to eat!

But the problem with developing any product is getting it noticed by enough people to make a difference in the bottom line. Supermarkets do this by prominently displaying free samples, for instance. Software makers also give away free samples in the form of trial versions; they either have limited functions or stop working after a certain number of days or uses, after which you must pay for them if you want to continue using the product. This is a respectable way of doing business.

A less respectable way of doing business, and unfortunately very effective, is bundling. The free software you want is packaged with other software you probably don’t want, such as toolbars (whose only real purpose is to keep a business name in your face so you’ll eventually spend money), charity apps, or advertising (some of which is truly obnoxious!) Bundled software is classified as PUPs (Potentially Unwanted Programs) rather than true malware, because it can be uninstalled (even though it’s a hassle), and can usually be opted-out of during the initial installation, at least if you actually read the installation screens.

Some developers are even more villainous, and have no desire to make something useful other than to themselves. These are the people that write programs that get in your face constantly with offers to clean up your PC (after they themselves screwed it up!), give you a free iPad, or – worst of all – let you have your files back if you pay them a ransom. These people know how search engines such as Google work, and they will make sure that when you search (for example) for a way to edit a PDF file without spending lots of money, their product will be close to the top of the list. This is why it’s seldom a good idea to Google search for free software unless you’re very, very careful. This is true malware, and sometimes will not go away without the drastic step of wiping the entire hard drive.

Certain people are more vulnerable to this sort of scam. Teenagers (because they think they know everything about computers), people with very little computer experience, people who always want something for nothing, people with porn addictions, and hardcore gamers (because they are always looking for cheats and game add-ons), are particularly at risk.

There are very good and incredibly useful free programs out there; it’s just a matter of knowing where to find them. The best place I’ve found to start is ninite.com, which not only offers the very best of freeware, including free antivirus, but packages it in a hassle-free multiple installer that installs everything without the toolbars and other c**p.

If you can’t use ninite, read the installation screens very carefully, and simply un-check (or decline) anything other than the program you intended to install. This often means you must choose “custom installation” or similar wording, and wade through several pages of offers before you’re done.

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