Freeware vs. Shareware vs. Open Source – What is Each and How to Use Them Safely
What type of software should your company use?
Last updated on June 17, 2022
During the last decade or so, software deployment for both SMBs and enterprise has become rather problematic – not so much on the upscaling part, but rather on the number of licenses an institution has to purchase and renew. The costs can be ginormous, which is the very reason why the company owner resorts to cost-effective alternatives such as freeware, shareware, and open-source. In this article, I’m going to run you through each category. After that, you can decide which is better for your business. Let’s get to it – freeware vs. shareware vs. open source. Who will win the race?
What is Freeware?
Loosely defined as a type of proprietary software, that it’s being distributed at no cost whatsoever for the user, freeware is the answer to accomplishing very simple tasks without the need of investing in expensive, license-based software. Freeware software has no EULA, license, or rights of any kind, which means that it can be deployed on both home and enterprise machines.
Freeware is not a modern concoction. In fact, the term itself was coined in the golden 80s by Andrew Fluegelman, who sough of means of making PC-Talk (Skype’s long-forgotten ancestors) available outside regular distribution channels. The key differentiator between freeware, shareware, and open-source is that freeware does not make its source code available, despite being free of charge.
A couple of freeware examples: Discord (IM used by the gaming community), Yahoo Messenger (rest in peace, my friend), µTorrent, IrfanView, Groove Music, Winamp, DVD Shrink, CCleaner, and others.
Easy to use and deploy (for home users and enterprises\SMBs).
A great way to incentivize your potential customers (for soft makers and marketeers gunning for paid licenses).
Solve daily tasks without having to invest in expensive software.
Quickly grow your user base.
No way of reverse-engineering it since the source code is not made available.
Customers may sometimes perceive the product as inferior.
What is Shareware?
Probably most of the apps found online and offline fall under this category. Shareware is so widespread that it ‘felt’ the need to have its own consortium. Called the Association of Shareware Professional or ASP, for short, this international trading and trade organization comprises over 1,500 vendors, authors, and online retailers. The term was coined around the same time as freeware.
While Fluegelman was pushing his PC-Talk comm app. Jim “Button” Knopf, an IBM employee at that time, was releasing a database program called PC-File. In legal terms, the main difference between Knopf’s apps and Fluegelman’s freebie is that the database program was never meant to be offered free of charge.
Knopf himself called his creation “user-supported software” meaning that users would need to cover some of the fees associated with the continual development of the product. No doubt, an interesting marketing praxis, but a lucrative one, given shareware’s popularity and availability.
Shareware is an umbrella term, encompassing various types of apps, each following a unique business model.
Types of shareware
Also called “advertising-supported software”, this type of shareware has embedded ads running alongside the apps. The purpose of adware is to generate revenue for its creator. Ads may be present during the installation process or as part of the user interface. Most are ‘hardwired’ to analyze the users’ traffic in order to display customized ads. Adware is free-to-use, but the sheer number of ads can interfere with normal operation. A large number of apps currently available on Google Play are adware.
It may sound like a new form of malware, but it’s actually a legit type of software. Why is it called “Crippleware”? Because the author purposely “cripples” the app’s vital functions, making them available in the paid or premium version. For instance, if you have photo-editing apps, the download as jpeg function may be disabled or the photos may have watermarks that can be removed by upgrading to full.
Trialware apps can be used for a limited period. In most cases, users will be granted access to all of the app’s functions (including the ones available in the paid version). However, once the trial period expires, the app will be disabled or revert to a very basic (and very unusable version). From my experience, trialware that doesn’t cover vital system processes (i.e. antivirus or malware-scanner), will simply stop working. They will, of course, display a splash screen meant to inform the user that the software has expired and that he must upgrade to full.
The software grants the user access to all of its features. However, it does come with one small request: the user is asked to shell out a small amount of cash to support the project or just show appreciation for the author’s work. The payout part is optional, having no bearing of the app’s functionality. Given its behavior, one could consider that donationware has more in common with freeware than with shareware.
Pejorative in nature, the term “nagware” describes a software category that reminds users via on-screen messages that their licenses are about to expire and that they should upgrade to the full version. In most cases, the nags will continue well after the trial period is over. The functionality will be reduced, the user having access only to basic functions.
A portmanteau term (“free” + “premium”) describing a type of software that ‘withholds’ advanced features, making them available in the premium version. The free version is fully functional. Nags are rare, but users might receive ads from time to time regarding the advantages of the premium versions.
Free to use.
Powerful feature. Great for getting a one-time task done.
Donationware is just as good as any license-based application.
Diversity and abundance.
Most of them are cross-platformers.
Some legal issues may arise if deployed on enterprise machines.
Poor compatibility with newer operating systems.
Ads and nags can become annoying.
Shareware doesn’t benefit from regular security and functionality updates as licensed software.
One last thing to mention – neither freeware nor shareware authors don’t make the software code available for studying or altering. Which brings us to the third software category: open-source.
What is Open-Source?
Open-source software or OSS is a type of software in which the author releases the source code. Furthermore, as far as the copyright is concerned, whoever holds the software’s license can distribute, study or alter the source code. Enterprises would often turn to open-source solutions since they’re much easier to customize compared to licensed software.
The best example of OSS I can think of is VLC player, one of the most popular video players available online. That’s on the consumer side.
As for enterprises and SMBs, there are a number of open-source software that successfully replaced their license-based counterparts: OpernCart (online shopping platform), SuiteCRM (useful for managing customer info), Helpy (self-service support), Mailman (management tool for email lists), WordPress (blogging), Daawarpper (data visualization), Gimp (powerful image editor), LibreOffice (perfect and free alternative to Microsoft Office), and the list goes on.
Open-source software pros:
Free and cheaper compared to (paid) license-based products.
Modable, reliable, and easy to use.
Safer from a cybersecurity standpoint compared to free and even some license-based products.
Very flexible. It can be used beyond its intended purpose (you’re going to need a talented backend hand for that).
Open-source software cons:
It can incur some long-term (and unforeseeable) costs. Any issues that arise have to be dealt with by yourself or your dev team. This usually happens when the software has been outstretched or altered more than necessary. Doing in-house patching and/or repair points to another con: no support for the product. So, if something goes wrong, you’re on your own.
Less-than-friendly UI. It will also take you a while to learn the product.
Freeware vs. Shareware
Now that we’ve got the basics in place, let’s take a closer look at the first contenders: freeware vs. shareware.
First of all, I think it’s important to see which category the two of them address. We can agree (to disagree) that both types of software can be used on home and work machines alike. As someone who didn’t have a lot of money to spend on software, I can wholeheartedly say that freeware is what dreams are made of – imagine what it would have meant to buy a Photoshop license just to tweak some family photos or to pull a plank on your roommate.
Game streaming – for those of you familiar with the concept, the costs alone can make your head spin, that is if you want to go pro. Still, even the basics can cost a pretty penny. Luckily you can accomplish basic tasks like screen or voice recording with some very nice (and free) online tools.
Things change a bit when it comes to deploying freeware on enterprise machines. Of course, some shareware can handle some of the routine tasks. For instance, ePrompter is a great and hassle-free alternative to Microsoft Outlook or some other desktop-based email management tool. Even TeamViewer, the (over)glorified remote computer control tool is free and can be used to accomplish very simple tasks.
Other honorable mentions: Discord (great alternative to Teams, Skype for business, and even WhatsApp), B1 Free Archiver (if you really don’t want to buy WinRAR), Recuva (powerful data recovery application), CCleaner (registry cleaner), Foxit Reader (open and print pdf files), and Microsoft Visual Studio Express (supports multiple IDEs, pitch-perfect for web designers).
Indeed, they are very powerful tools, but, in my opinion, simply not enough to meet the needs of a bustling enterprise. It all boils down to statistics: the bigger the database, the likelier it is to find a solution (or more) to suit your needs.
Why shareware? There are literally thousands of apps, available both online and offline, some of them just as good, if not better than license-based software. One thing about shareware – it’s a short-term solution.
Basically, it’s your ‘emergency-only’ kit: problem – shareware – problem solved. This type of software wasn’t designed for long-term use. As I pointed out in the section about shareware, most have some kind of built-in ‘safety’ to prevent users from doing just that; except for donationware, of course. There’s also the matter of overexposing your machine(s) to malicious content. I will cover this in the last section of the article.
The main reason why shareware is better than freeware for enterprise needs – evergreen(ess). Most freeware is outdated, meaning that they may not even run properly on Windows 10 machines. If you also add the fact that they are unpatched, you’ve got yourself a major cybersecurity vulnerability. Last, but not least, to my knowledge, few freeware support platforms other than Microsoft Windows. So, if you need to deploy freeware on a machine running Linux or macOS, you’re in for a world of pain.
Winner – shareware. Hassle-free, tons of content, suitable for any kind of needs, be them home- or enterprise-related.
Shareware vs. open-source
Clearly, shareware is the better alternative to freeware, but how does it fare against open-source software. Clearly, the latter category holds the high ground here. Why? Because, as the name suggests, the source code is made available, which means that a talented backend hand can easily customize it. But, will it prove to be a match for shareware’s availability and ‘widespreadness’?
It could and it does. Open-source software is definitely getting a lot of attention and for a very good reason – even though OSS is free, it’s extremely reliable and tends to take quite a beating when subjected to repeated reverse-engineering. And, on top of that, OSS software, compared to freeware and shareware, is much more secure.
Open-source software is amazing simply because it’s out there and can potentially be molded into anything you like. However, it’s not the Holy Grail of enterprise software, nor does it want to be. OSS is scalable, dependable, and, in all cases, it’s made by an experienced computer engineer who isn’t necessarily motivated by money. Don’t get me wrong – shareware-type software is also developed by experienced people, but on the sample-now-buy-full-later basis.
As an enterprise, you should also consider the support aspect. If something goes terribly wrong with the software, there’s no one out there to help.
Well, that’s entirely correct; there’s an entire community out there of experts willing to give you a helping hand, but that means hours upon hours of digging through forums, asking questions and praying for someone to come up with the right answer. This perspective is not exactly compatible with an enterprise’s credo.
So, do we have a winner here? It would say that it’s a tie: open-source is dependable, flexible, and scalable, but low on support and could incur unforeseen costs, especially when you try to use for purposes other than it was designed for. On the other hand, shareware holds an abundant database but falls back as far as a long-term commitment.
Freeware vs. shareware vs open source
Now that we have all the pieces of the puzzle, it’s easier to figure out which is the best enterprise-grade solution.
Let’s start with freeware.
Major advantages – it’s free, easy to install, and can solve any number of issues. On the other hand, disadvantages wise, the freeware pool is very limited and can only address a handful of issues. Freeware would best be used on home machines. Take that and its questionable compatibility, no support of any kind, and the fact that most of them are obsolete, it’s safe to assume that freeware and enterprises just don’t mix.
Shareware – an entire database, laid down at your feet. Plenty of possibilities, but is shareware the answer to your company’s needs? It’s just a matter of how you look upon the problem: if it’s a one-time thing, then you should definitely consider deploying software on a couple of machines.
There’s no need to concern yourself with the trial period, as long as you can solve the task or tasks in one go. Just bear in mind that some apps will revert to basic functions or stop working altogether after a certain number of uses. Of course, if the app suits your needs, you can always activate the full version by buying the license.
Open-source – dependable, can easily be taken apart by any IDE, and free to use. Do take in mind that OSS can come with hidden costs and it’s harder to get used to it compared to shareware or license-based software. If you encounter issues along the way, you can always ask the dev community for help. Just don’t expect the answer to be prompt as in the case of an app that offers round-the-clock support.
In the end, it’s all up to you to decide which one clicks with your company’s needs.
Cybersecurity issues and safety tips
Tackling non-licensed-based software should come with a warning label. Up next, I’ll be discussing the risk of using shareware, freeware, and open-source software. I will also include some cybersecurity tips along the way.
1. Adware also means malware
If you plan on using shareware, pay extra attention to apps that use ads-generated revenue. Some of them may contain links to malicious websites that could seriously harm your machine. Best to check the security certificate after clicking on an ad, though I advise you not to.
2. Fake apps
Some applications advertised as freeware could be fake. Don’t download the first app you find on Google. Take your time and do some research. You would do well to stay away from websites that use too many CTAs and “free download” buttons. It’s like playing Russian Roulette with your personal data.
3. Freeware used as a malware entry point
As you know, outdated and unpatched software can be used by malicious hackers to circumvent your antivirus\antimalware solution. Since freeware does not receive regular security patches, it can become an entry point for malware.
Companies, regardless of their size and needs, can also benefit from freeware, shareware, and open-source software. It’s all about figuring out your needs and selecting the solution that makes the most sense. As always, if you have any questions, feel free to send me a message.
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Experienced blogger with a strong focus on technology, currently advancing towards a career in IT Security Analysis. I possess a keen interest in exploring and understanding the intricacies of malware, Advanced Persistent Threats (APTs), and various cybersecurity challenges. My dedication to continuous learning fuels my passion for delving into the complexities of the cyber world.