Do More With Your Mac – Add Freeware and Shareware Programs to Your Applications
As good as the software included with every Mac is, most of us eventually find that we want to do something with our computers that we can’t do out of the box. To name a few from my experience: record audio from a particular program, “rip” a DVD to my hard disk just as I might rip a CD into iTunes, and store my checkbook register on the computer so I can’t screw up the arithmetic on my own.
Many of these are small tasks that don’t require me to go to the computer store and pay a lot of money for a program that has the one feature I need and many others that I don’t. For each of the aforementioned examples and many others, I was able to obtain a piece of software called “shareware” or “freeware” to get the job done for little to no money at all.
This is not to say that shareware is of lesser quality than other apps that you would pay for in the store, nor is it any less secure. On the contrary, small developers are often MORE conscious of quality and security than large companies—more on that later. But the main thing that sets freeware and shareware apart from most other software is the way it is distributed.
These applications are generally downloaded from the Internet and there are a few websites dedicated to cataloging as much Mac free/shareware as possible. My favorite website for this purpose is Macupdate.com, where you can find thousands of Mac apps available for download for almost any conceivable purpose. In fact, there are often several options to choose from for any particular task you may want to do—so much for the myth that software for the Mac is scarce or difficult to find.
Another distinctive feature of shareware is that you are allowed to try the software before paying for it, though often in a limited form. Some kinds of shareware post a splash screen asking you to pay for the program and then let you continue unhindered. Others permit you to use the software unhindered for a period of time (commonly thirty days or fewer), after which you must pay up to continue using the app. Some programs restrict the features you can use, don’t let you save your work, or leave a “watermark” on saved and printed files. And in the case of freeware, as the name implies, you never have to pay a dime—the program is completely available for you to use as soon as you download it (though freeware developers generally accept donations).
When you pay for shareware, one of a couple of things may happen. A common way to pay for shareware is through PayPal, which is a respected payment processor that accepts major credit cards and can also take money directly from your bank accounts if you choose. However, some companies deal directly with Visa and other credit-card companies, processing payments themselves (Kagi is a similar payment processor that used to be quite popular, and is still seen on occasion).
Rarely, you may mail a check or postal money order, through PayPal, and credit cards are the norm today. Also, the vast majority of shareware is inexpensive—prices rarely top $40, and often buying a license entitles you to free or reduced-price upgrades to future major versions of the product (minor updates such as bug and security fixes are normally free).
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Usually, when you purchase a license, the company will send you a “serial number” or “license code” that you use to unlock the program. All you have to do is type the code into the appropriate box and you’re all set.
Finally, most (though not all) freeware and shareware is written by small, independent developers. In fact, there are a large number of shareware companies that are one-man outfits, although they often team up with other people or companies to take care of payment processing. It is more common for there to be a small handful of programmers working together, as well as perhaps a person or two to handle technical support.
These are not large companies with huge advertising budgets lighting Cuban cigars with $100 bills. Many of these companies have a smaller user base than large companies such as Adobe and Microsoft, and as a result, they are more sensitive to each individual user, since each sale is precious. This is why quality and security are often better in shareware than in commercial software—small companies care more because they can’t afford to.
Many free/shareware apps originated as labors of love—a programmer found something that he wanted to do with his Mac, found that no such program existed, and wrote it himself. And if you poke around on the Internet a little bit, it is easy to find that there are a number of small Mac programmers who form a tight-knit and very cordial community and produce some exceptional software. Try Googling Wil Shipley, Brent Simmons, Drunken Batman, Cabel Sasser, and Jonathan Rentzsch for a look at some of the rock gods of Mac software.
A Word About Open Source Software
There is a lot of good OSS available for the Mac. It is always free (though some programs based on open-source software are not) and because many thousands of people may contribute to these apps just a little bit, they all have a lot of eyes looking at them. As a result, the quality is consistently very high for the more “mature” apps that have been around for a little while. But you lose out on having a single person whom you can e-mail with questions. Open-source projects tend to have a “community” built around them that usually involves some form of the message board or “wiki” where users help each other out. Be polite and patient with the people trying to help you, and you’ll do just fine (searching for the solution to your problem on a message board before making a new post about it helps too).
In the coming weeks, I will be reviewing freeware and shareware third-party applications for Mac OS X. Next week I feature a brief overview of the few that I personally consider the most important. I use them all quite frequently (some of them daily): Adium, Delicious Library, Firefox, and VLC. Three of them are free; these three are also all open source.
Stay tuned for more…