Free Software Inside

October 12, 2003

online edition

OCT 12, 2003

Free software inside

Why risk buying pirated software when Freeware, with many top-name features, is up for grabs


IF YOU paid $10 for the pirated copy of Microsoft Windows that is running on your PC, you're not only breaking the law.

You've also paid $10 too much for your software.

For zero dollars down and zero dollars a month, you could have your computer running on an operating system that is as good as, if not better than, Windows.

And for the same price, zero dollars, you could also get fully-featured software applications that have all the bells and whistles of big names such as Adobe Photoshop and Norton AntiVirus.

And it's all legal.

Known as freeware, these software applications are available for consumers to download and use completely free of charge.

They range from inane applications, like screensavers with dancing hamsters, to full-blown office suites (like OpenOffice),

Unlike the pirated software you pull off the Internet via peer-to-peer networks like Kazaa, freeware is legal.

Freeware software has been around since the early 1980s when independent programmers shared software they had written with other computer users on electronic bulletins.

Since these programs were usually small, simple and not considered marketable, their authors often passed them around for free.

Today, freeware programs have become so comprehensive and reliable that even large corporations are using them in their daily operations.

For example, more than 60 per cent of all websites in the world, including those of big corporations like IBM and Apple, are powered by Apache, a web server software which can be downloaded and used free of charge. Many authors of freeware applications are more than happy to give away their labours of love.

Mr Tan Kok Mun, a Singaporean PR from Malaysia, started writing applications such as games and utilities for Personal Digital Assistants (PDAs) years ago as a learning experience and gave them out free of charge on the Internet.

'One of the greatest motivations is receiving e-mail messages from the worldwide community - from praise, thank you notes, suggestions to just simple hello notes to make new friends,' says Mr Tan, a 39-year-old computer science graduate who is now between jobs.

When groups of programmers like Mr Tan team up to develop software, you end up with full-blown applications such as Apache and OpenOffice.

Programmers of software like these are part of what has been called the open-source movement, where groups of programmers from all over the world contribute to developing and upgrading certain software applications.

Since everyone contributes and no one person owns the software, there is usually no charge for using it.

Mr Colin Charles, Malaysia's marketing community contact for OpenOffice, explains that users who download and use their software are also free to make their own improvements to the software, customising features to suit their own needs and can even share them with other users.

Other forms of freeware are released by software companies to entice users to upgrade to the paid 'professional' versions of the same software.

These usually come with full customer support and dozens of added features.

So what is the catch?

For one thing, most freeware programs don't provide a support desk you can call if something goes wrong.

Other than that, there aren't many other downsides.

Some cynics may think that because freeware is free, the applications might contain bugs and not work properly.

But OpenOffice's Mr Charles points out that bugs are often found in almost all software, whether you pay for them or not.

'Even Microsoft's stuff requires patches,' he says.

That is why first-year engineering student Nicholas Ng swears by his free copy of OpenOffice to write his assignments and prepare presentation slides.

It does makes sound economic sense.

If ordered from Amazon, Microsoft XP Standard costs at least US$128 (S$223).

OpenOffice which gives him all the applications he needs to do his assignments does not cost a cent.

'I'm paranoid of being caught using pirated software,' says Mr Ng, 21.

'Since I can't afford to buy legal copies of applications such as Microsoft Office, freeware is the next best thing.'

Colin Charles <>, © 1996-2004