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Mike Elgan

Share and Share Alike
Some of the best Windows software ever created is distributed as shareware or freeware. But so is the worst.

Don't let anyone tell you that more shareware is better shareware. There are hundreds, thousands, possibly tens of thousands of shareware megasites on the Web. But quantity, even so much of it, doesn't necessarily lead to quality.

Actually, the existence of shareware supersites reflects an old-fashioned, pre-Web kind of thinking in which more is better. But at a time when we're all suffering from information overload, the Web supersites are of little benefit. I want less: only the good stuff-don't even show me the rest.

At first glance, shareware supersites may look like they have real value. But it's an illusion. Here's what's really valuable:

Your time. You don't have time to surf the entire Web in search of a supersite, drill down into an infinite shareware collection, guess which one to pick, then take the time to test it . . . only to discover that it hoses your machine. If time is money, then shareware and freeware can be very expensive indeed!

A fine-tuned, smoothly functioning PC. I get dozens of e-mail messages a day from people whose systems have crashed, almost always mysteriously. In many cases, it's impossible for me to help because the real problem is that some rogue or poorly written piece of software altered a key file, inserted a buggy DLL or made an improper Registry change. Often, the culprit is shareware or freeware written by amateurs. If your work comes to a standstill when there's a malfunctioning system, then experimenting with unsupported files downloaded from the Internet is a serious risk.

Sound, authoritative judgment. It's cheap and easy to post shareware on the Web. And that's the problem-since it's so cheap and easy, everybody does it. It takes people who have the time, inclination and expertise in hardware, software and business applications to identify the nuggets and toss out the rest.

That would be us. This is why there's such a huge difference between the WINDOWS Magazine shareware site and your average shareware supersite; by posting only the best of the best files, we provide value by filtering out all the files that don't meet our high standards.

And it's also why this month's cover story is far more valuable than any shareware supersite.

Don't get me wrong: In principle, I have nothing against shareware and freeware. In fact, I'm a big fan of dozens of utilities and applications distributed as freeware. Many of these files are comprehensive enough, and good enough, to be sold as commercial, shrink-wrapped software. But I'd have to pay more if they were, so I'm glad they're shareware.

At the same time, one of the best things about the shareware model is that it enables authors to write small, single-purpose utilities. For example, I use a freeware utility called AtomTime, which synchronizes my PC with the atomic clock in Colorado over the Internet. It's a small piece of coding, but I find it enormously useful. I just put it in my StartUp folder and forget about it. My PC is never more than 1 second fast or slow.

I've also become a recent convert to a Notepad replacement utility called Notepad+. It's just like Notepad, but it autowraps text, allows multiple fonts and sports a bunch of other handy timesaving features.

In addition, I rely heavily on our own Wintune freeware utility, Microsoft's PowerToys, Nico Mak's WinZip and a handful of other products that probably wouldn't exist if it weren't for the shareware/freeware distribution model.

Just remember that shareware runs the gamut. Some of the best Windows software ever created is distributed as shareware or freeware. But so is the worst. So watch what you download! And rely on our shareware cover story this month to guide you to only the best.

Mike Elgan is editor of WINDOWS Magazine. Contact Mike at his Web site (http://www.winmag.com/people/melgan) or at the addresses on page 20. All of the software mentioned in this article is available at http://www.winmag.com/win95.

Windows Magazine, September 1997, page 17.

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