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A Note about Freeware
— Copyright © 2003, P. Lutusmessage page

The Internet was originally a forum for computer professionals and academics who understood the nature of the medium, many of whom played a part in building it, and who largely accepted their responsibilities. These intelligent and creative people understood that the other people on the Internet were peers, people like themselves who understood creative coöperation.

The old Internet had one level, that of human beings, and they posted what interested them. Contemporary Internet users may find this hard to believe, but most of the content was free, and everyone had something to offer (there were no pure consumers).

Today's Internet bears little resemblance to the old one. The modern Internet has become a corporate playground, a commercial free-fire zone, and is about to become one interminable advertisement, an ideal only dreamt of by television producers. The number of users has exploded as well, and the old Internet of coöperation and equality has been pretty much buried in the rubble.

The new Internet, unlike the old, is hierarchical — there are vendors and there are consumers. The vendors are perpetually in your face, and the consumers, like consumers everywhere, behave like narcissistic children — whatever it is, it isn't good enough, give me more.

The new Internet is designed to look as much as possible like television — you watch, then you consume, both passively. This means people only exposed to television's picture of reality don't have to adjust their perceptions or behavior when they log on.

Since the corporate hijacking of the Internet, and after the explosion in users, it seems you can still find pieces of the old Internet, scattered here and there among the hustlers and con men. This site, www.arachnoid.com, is part of the old Internet — everything here is free, including some very well-known programs. This is a purely non-commercial site — there are no advertisements and nothing is for sale. And, because free Internet sites are now so rare, the status and purpose of this site is causing some confusion among visitors.

In the time of the old Internet, I would not have to explain what I am about to, because everyone understood it. But in recent communications I have begun to see a dramatic distortion of perception among some of the users of my programs, and I therefore must clearly explain what a free program is, and what it is not.
Freeware rights and responsibilities
"Freeware" is software you do not pay for, ever, in any way.

  • It is not "Shareware," which you eventually must pay for.

  • It is not "Nagware," which tries to get you to pay for something that was originally offered as though it was free.

  • It is not "Crippleware," software that perpetually tries to annoy and tease you about features only enabled in the commercial version.

  • It is not "Adware," an increasingly popular form of software that is actually a vehicle for advertising, and that is much like the modern Internet itself.

  • It is not "Spyware," a sleazy kind of program that opens a channel of communication between your computer and someone who wants to know what you are doing.

To put it simply, freeware must meet some of your needs or it cannot exist. By contrast, commercial software can fail this basic standard and continue to exist, even thrive, for decades. Example: Windows, which does precisely what it wants on your computer, usually at your expense.

Digression: Remember the movie "Chinatown?" At a critical moment in the story, when nothing made any sense and Jack Nicholson's character wanted to tear his hair, a sympathetic friend leaned toward him and said, sotto voce, "Jake, it's Chinatown." This was supposed to send the message that it was all existential, it wasn't supposed to make sense, resistance was futile and he should simply accept it. Well, in exactly the same way, "it's Windows." Windows isn't supposed to make sense, it's supposed to make money.
Given the list of exclusions above, almost no modern software is truly freeware. Real freeware must never self-cripple, expire, nag, cajole, advertise, or confront the user with any content not related to the function of the program.

To cut to the chase, my programs are freeware. Actually, they are CareWare, but the basic premise of CareWare (people should stop whining) is so idealistic and out-of-date now that I will eventually have to remove all references to CareWare from my programs. Telling modern Internet users to stop whining is like telling them to stop breathing — it seems unrealistic and inhumane.

When you download a freeware program, you have some rights, some responsibilities, and you have just one remedy:

  • Rights

    • That you will not have to pay for the program, in any way, ever.
    • That the program will turn out to be what its description says it is.
    • That the program will meet at least some of your needs.
    • That your privacy will not be invaded.

  • Responsibilities

    • You must read the documentation and FAQ list before asking a question.
    • You may not demand new answers to questions already covered in the FAQ list or the documentation.
    • You may not demand customer service or one-on-one instruction.
    • You don't have the right to demand program changes to suit your personal tastes.
    • If you feel an impulse to say "You only get what you pay for," be sure your sexual partner doesn't overhear you, because, unless brain-damaged, he or she will stop sleeping with you.

  • Remedies

    • There's just one — you can stop using the program. You cannot complain about it as though you paid for it, because you didn't.

What I am saying in essence is that users must not treat freeware like commercial software. For one thing, much of freeware is better than commercial software. Why? Because most people who write freeware actually like computers and programming, and most freeware programs were written by people who, whatever they were doing, were not watching a clock while feeling exploited by a corporation.

Digression: why do you think Microsoft's software is so dreadful? Simple. It was largely written by people who didn't want to be doing what they were doing, who were the least expensive programmers the personnel division could find to fill empty positions, who were being exploited and who knew it. Programmers who are actually skilled at programming either start their own companies or retire (and maybe write freeware) — but they don't remain corporate lackeys, struggling to repair the latest version of Windows.

There's an old joke with relevance to this topic. After John Glenn's historic orbital flight, interviewers asked him what he thought as he waited for lift-off. He replied, "I was thinking that the rocket had twenty thousand components, and each was made by the lowest bidder". Commercial software is, by definition, built by the lowest bidder. By contrast, freeware (some of it, anyway) is built by people who actually like what they are doing, and some of them are people the big software corporations could not afford to hire.

Users of freeware must not forget that they didn't pay for the software, and therefore they cannot demand the satisfaction of an imaginary contract between the programmer and themselves. The usual adversarial relationship between a vendor and a consumer simply doesn't exist. I find that users below a certain age never grasp this fact, and invariably it is the youngest users who think they have the right to demand absolutely anything, and who expect satisfaction of any arbitrary whim.

Watching the Internet as I do, I find that the chasm between human beings and consumers is widening. Rather than belabor a point that has been adequately discussed elsewhere, including articles on this site (one example:  Consumer Angst ), I will simply say that people must not treat freeware as though it is commercial software, and must not treat freeware authors as though they can be held responsible for users' expectations. Boys and girls, this is not how freeware works.

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