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Nashville Scene It's Free

Why buy software? Just download it

By James Hanback Jr.

FEBRUARY 14, 2000:  Before the public explosion of the Internet in the mid-1990s, the most popular way to obtain software for your computer was to go to your local software outlet and buy it.

Commercial, proprietary software--from operating systems to word processors and all the way down to disk and file utilities--was the only type most people knew. And so it remains even today that much of the general computing public will buy proprietary office suites like Microsoft Office rather than download and use similar (and even compatible) free products from the Internet.

Some would say it's because of the old adage, "You get what you pay for." Others wonder, "Well, if that product is so good, why are they giving it away?"

However, thanks to the Internet and an evolution from proprietary commercial licensings first to shareware, then to freeware, and then the even further relaxing of the old mode of doing things by the Open Source Movement and general public licensing, more people are willing to believe that one can get good software for a reasonable price, or a reasonable "agreement." And, seeing this trend, many software companies that used to license software under a traditional proprietary license (Corel, Qualcomm, Netscape, and even Microsoft, to name a few) are finding success with newer, more customer-oriented licensing techniques.

If you're unfamiliar with software licensing, and you're still paying $200-$600 for your home office software suite, allow me to provide you with this brief introduction to some alternatives:

* Shareware is a term that's been around for a while now, and it is one of the most popular ways to get pay-for software noticed by an Internet-savvy software market. "Try before you buy" is the main theme, meaning that users can download a free trial version of the software, which they may use to a certain extent or for a certain time before being required to buy it. Until 1998, this was the way Netscape distributed its Web browser suite. Graphics programs like JASC Software's Paint Shop Pro, compression utilities like WinZip, and many games (Doom, Quake, etc.) are distributed this way.

In fact, shareware successfully opened wider the doors of choice for consumers. Instead of reading a box with a list of the features of a certain software package, one can download a limited version of the package and test it, as well as its competitors. Nowadays most software companies with an Internet presence will allow users to download shareware or trialware copies of at least some of their products.

* Freeware usually indicates that a software product is proprietary (the source code is not available for public viewing or manipulation), but that it is distributable without cost to the consumer. For years, my favorite FTP client for Windows has been a little program called Cupertino, which has a Windows Explorer-like interface and allows one to browse FTP sites just like they were network hard drives. Cupertino is free, with a stipulation by the author that you treat a friend to a pizza.

Lately, software companies looking to distribute products to the end user for free have also been looking for other means of making money from the product. Some charge for support. Some charge for specific uses (like commercial use of the product). Others use the sponsorship method, where the end user is subjected to advertising from other companies inside the software product.

Perhaps the best illustration of the varying methods of making cash on free software is the latest beta version of the Eudora e-mail client. It incorporates three different versions of their software: a paid-for version which is full-featured and contains no advertising; a free "sponsored" version which is full-featured but displays ads for various other companies and software packages in a corner of the user's display; and a free "light" version, which does not have advertising, but is also not full-featured.

Along these lines, some companies have developed "free for noncommercial use" licenses, which means if you only use their software for personal purposes, you may use it without charge. Until Sun Microsystems bought it last year, this is the way the office suite StarOffice was distributed. Now, StarOffice is free for commercial and noncommercial use when downloaded from Sun's Internet servers.

Likewise, Sun recently announced that its own popular Solaris operating system will, with an upcoming version, be distributed free of end-user and source code licensing fees. (Customers will still pay for the media on which the software is stored and for shipping costs when they order Solaris.) And Sun's not the only one. Be Inc., the makers of the graphically-oriented BeOS, have announced that BeOS 5 will soon be available for free download from the Internet for noncommercial use.

It has been said in tech circles that Sun is doing this in an attempt to go head-to-head with the popular open source--and freely downloadable from the Internet--Linux operating system, which leads me to the next section.

* Open Source is often confused with freeware because most software distributed as open source and under what's called the General Public License (or "copyleft") is distributed without charge via the Internet. There are, however, some rather large distinctions between the two.

Freeware, most of the time, is still proprietary software, meaning that the author/vendor retains all rights to distribute and modify the program's source code. Any changes or improvements to that code is the sole responsibility of its owner. Therefore, the program is limited by the owner's skills, or the skills of his hired programmers.

Open source means that the software's source code can be distributed and modified by programmers who do not own the code. Linux, for example, contains source code contributions from programmers all over the Internet. It is also distributed by a variety of software vendors.

Because Linux is open source, its code is not limited to the knowledge of a small group of programmers. It can therefore grow and improve faster and without a heavy price compared to proprietary operating systems.

Like freeware, the description of open source often leaves people wondering how the authors/vendors make money from the product. In Linux's case, there are companies that charge for support, and you can purchase Linux on CD-ROM instead of downloading from the Internet if you're low on bandwidth.

* On the Horizon, there appear to be myriad choices for software consumers. For the end user, the end of the 1990s and the beginning of 2000 have been the best of times. Computer hardware fell below $1,000. The Internet opened a floodgate of business potential and--in part because products are now less inhibited by the locations of stores, and in part because of the popularity of online auctions--a true buyer's market for most products available on the Web. And solid, feature-rich software is no longer out of reach of those who don't want to spend a fortune for proprietary products.

In the coming year, expect to see more software companies following the lead of the Netscapes, Suns, Bes, and Qualcomms, by either freeing up their source code or making their proprietary products available to the end user free of charge. Some, like Qualcomm, will have difficulty deciding on the best way to provide a free version of their software and still make money. Some will free up their products as little more than an attempt to get a foothold in some nearly Microsoft-exclusive markets.

But in the end, there will be a few more who not only free up their products for users, but who also open their source code, allowing their products to be improved by other programmers, and by the users. In fact, some traditionally proprietary companies (like Apple Computer) have already implemented some open source ideas into their most popular software. Apple's Mac OS X Server and Mac OS X (described in detail at www.apple.com) take advantage of code developed in Apple's Darwin open source project.

It almost seems like part of an evolutionary process for the software industry. Stepping back to look at it, one can see new innovations unfolding and expanding like a new universe belched from an imploded star.

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