Everybody loves FREE! Computer vendors and software companies first started routinely charging for software licenses in the late 1970s. In the early years of home computing, many of us learned from each other through meetings, books, magazines and sharing free software by mailing floppy disks to one another. The hidden cost then was a steep learning curve (free software ordinarily lacks user manuals or support services), and that anticipated updates might never be forthcoming. The Free Software Foundation (1985) and the Open Source Initiative (1998) continue to advocate free software availability to this day. Free software became widely available in the mid-1990s as internet access became commonplace.
Plenty of nominally free software is still readily available. Microsoft initially opposed the concept of open software licensing, but has gradually softened this stance over the ensuing years – even to the point of offering some free software itself! As software has become full featured and sophisticated, creating new programs is now a skill requiring more talent, time and training than the casual user possesses.
Software creators and distributors of free software now fully expect reimbursement for their work and expenses. While you may not be charged directly for obtaining or using free software, you are paying for it in other ways. One of the most profitable providers of free software is Google (now Alphabet), who reported over $90 billion in revenues and $19 billion in profits for 2016. Most of that income derived from advertising related products and services. Facebook and Twitter aren’t doing too badly either!
There are scores of enterprises seeking to monetize their free products. Requesting donations, adding additional features or providing support services for an annual fee are frequent. Other common practices now include advertising and tracking cookies on download websites, embedded advertising in downloaded software, and bundling additional “value added” software with popular programs. Examples of value added software, often referred to as “pups” (potentially unwanted programs) include toolbars, browser helper objects, tracking services and even more nefarious creations. You will likely discover that removing the program you wanted will leave the extras behind. Removing those extras can prove to be intentionally difficult. Today’s free apps price tags may very well show the cost is $0.00, but the hidden costs are the snatching of some of most valuable things you possess: your attention, your privacy and your peace of mind. It’s a sleazy, indirect way of getting charged, but nonetheless it’s a widespread practice.
Despite the annoyances, I still use and recommend some free programs. Google Chrome, Google Search, Google Earth, Mozilla Firefox, Avast antivirus and CCleaner are a few of my favorites that I use every day. If you’re careful, you can often ferret out hidden controls buried deep inside some programs to limit the constant monitoring, reporting and interrupting activities. Remember: everything you say and do online can be used against you by ethically challenged advertisers!