Business in Vancouver: News that works for you

    The world of 'free' software can be confusing, but if you try it and like it, do the right thing

    by Alan Zisman (c) 1995 First published in Business in Vancouver ,  Issue #308  September 19, 1995 High Tech Office  column

    Since BIV includes an Internet e-mail address for this column, readers have plenty of opportunity to agree, disagree, or ask questions about anything that appears here. I promise to read, and will try to respond.

    A few weeks ago, a column about free software (The best tools for the Internet are often free, and well worth a try, Aug. 29--Sept. 4) brought this response from a reader who has asked to remain anonymous.

    "Read with interest your recent column on commercial use of freeware and shareware. I currently use a local Internet access-provider, for both personal and business uses, the latter primarily for e-mail. My concern with the shareware is the agreement that I accepted when loading the software onto my PC at work, which states that the programs are for evaluation purposes only, and should be purchased if commercial use is intended.

    "Is there any problem with me using the 'evaluation' software indefinitely for e-mail purposes from a corporate office? The account is in my personal name, but I wish to include the e-mail address on my business cards, as I find it an efficient way to communicate informally with my clients."

    The anonymous reader isn't alone in being confused--there's a lot of fuzziness about software that's distributed outside normal commercial channels, and the rights and obligations of the user.

    A minimal amount of software has been released into the public domain, meaning the author has given up any rights or responsibilities for it. Users can run it, copy it freely, even try to rewrite it and alter it--all without any cost or obligation. This is somewhat different from another category of free software, so-called freeware. In these cases, the author retains copyright, but allows free use--including copying and distribution--of the software. A subtle, but real distinction.

    More confusing to many people, however, is shareware. As our correspondent mentions, he obtained a number of programs, in his case from his Internet service-provider, that said that he could freely evaluate them. After a reasonable evaluation period (sometimes clearly indicated, and at other times left to the user's discretion), a user is expected to register the software in order to continue to use it. If the software is not registered, the user is as guilty of software piracy as someone with an illegally copied version of WordPerfect.

    This confusion is natural. Consider this example: an unnamed Internet provider sells a disk of Internet utilities for $25, offering features similar to those found on commercial products costing $200-500. It includes Trumpet Winsock, a program allowing Windows users to connect to the Internet using a modem. This turns out to be shareware, with a $25 registration fee. There's Eudora mailreader, a free version of a more elaborate commercial product.

    And there's Netscape Navigator, a World Wide Web browser which I incorrectly mentioned as a free product. In fact, after an evaluation period, Netscape is now requiring a US$32 registration (although this is waived for students, teachers, and educational and non-profit organizations).

    The fact that you may have paid to acquire the disk with these programs does not change the registration requirement. Similarly, you can now purchase floppy disks with shareware games and productivity programs in outlets ranging from Future Shop to some supermarkets, at prices between $5 and $10. Again, while you have bought the disk, you haven't bought the software: you still have the obligation to register the program for continued use.

    You can get away with not registering shareware--just as many people get away with other forms of software piracy. But registered users get benefits such as technical support and cheap (or, in some cases, free) upgrades, often along with fancier printed documentation.

    And many useful (or fun) shareware products are created by people who write shareware for a living: if they don't get enough registrations, they'll move on to more lucrative occupations, and soon, the shareware channel will dry up.

    A number of companies have found that they could get enough return through shareware to make a reasonable living, although the most successful, in many cases, move to more traditional forms of commercial distribution as soon as possible.

    Telecommunications software seems to have acquired more than its share of successful shareware programs: the well-respected ProComm and QModem programs for PCs began as shareware, as did Red Ryder and White Knight, among others, for the Mac. And we shouldn't forget the recent wave of gory games, such as the wildly successful Doom--again, a shareware startup that evolved into the commercially distributed Doom 2.

    So freely try out shareware: you probably won't replace your office's word processor, but you may find a number of useful and entertaining specialty programs. Then do the right thing, and register the ones that you want to continue to use.

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Alan Zisman is a Vancouver educator, writer, and computer specialist. He can be reached at E-mail Alan