Why You Can Trust Free Software (or at Least Some of It)

Most people expect to be paid for their work. So how come there's so much free software out there? What's the catch?

Jeanne Light wonders whether it's safe to use free software. "What do [the authors] get out of it?" She feels, understandably, quite skeptical.

It's good to be skeptical. And careful. Free products often come with strings attached. But if you pay attention and listen for the right recommendations, you can get some excellent software for free--without breaking the law.

There are some perfectly good reasons why an individual programmer, a programming collective, or even a for-profit company will let you use the fruit of their labor without getting paid.

[Have a tech question? Ask PCWorld Contributing Editor Lincoln Spector. Send your query to answer@pcworld.com.]

The free version of a program is often a marketing tool for the paid version. The company gives away a stripped-down version of their product, which can build word of mouth that helps sell the paid "Pro" version.

That Pro version will have features that the free one lacks--features that many can do without but others need. For instance, only the paid version of EASEus Todo Backup can password-protect your backups. And the free version generally comes without tech support. Also, many free versions are offered only for home use. If you're a business, you have to buy the Pro version.

Free software can also produce income through advertising. But this advertising can cross the line to become borderline malware.

The worst such advertising comes with the installation routine. If you're not careful when you walk through the installation wizard, you'll install two or three programs you don't want in addition to the one you do.

These are called potentially unwanted programs (PUPs), and many consider them malware. The trick to avoiding these is simple: Never use the default installation. Always run the custom installation.

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Go through the options carefully, unchecking any software other than what you actually want.

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Some freeware displays advertising in the actual program. As annoying as this can be, it's far better than installing PUPs.

Finally, some people actually do create free software without expecting to get money back. Some do it for altruistic reasons, believing that the world will be a better place if their program is widely available. Others do it as a hobby. Steve Miller, whose PureText utility I would hate to be without, told me that "The apps on my personal site are written purely for fun...."

This story, "Why You Can Trust Free Software (or at Least Some of It)" was originally published by PCWorld.

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