What is “Freeware”?


Gizmo’s is all about freeware but just what is “freeware”? Not everybody means the same thing when they tag some piece of software as “freeware”. You will often see something labeled freeware when it really isn’t. In this article, I will describe various kinds of software that are often called freeware and try to clear up some of the confusion.

True freeware

What I call real “freeware” comes in these two varieties:

  • Freeware with proprietary code - These programs can be downloaded and used as you please, for as long as you please, wherever you please. No source code is available and the programs cannot be modified
  • Open source freeware  - These programs can be downloaded and used as you please, for as long as you please, wherever you please. The source code is available and, with certain restrictions, you can modify the code and distribute it.

Software with strings or restrictions 

There are some common categories that are called freeware but have strings of one sort or the other. They may not cost you a direct cash payment but they come with indirect ways to generate income for the developer. In a sense then, they are not really free and might be called “pseudo-freeware”. You can decide for yourself if they are really “free”.

  • Shareware - This is an old category whose original meaning has basically disappeared. Back in the days of DOS, this is how individual developers sold or "shared" their programs. These were programs that you could try out for free. If you liked the program and continued to use it, you were then supposed to pay for it. Otherwise, you were supposed to uninstall it. It was an honor system that many people abused so it died out. Nowadays, the term “shareware” is often applied to trialware (see below) or sometimes to freemium software (discussed next). Shareware was never freeware but some people confuse the term “shareware” with the stricter category “freeware”.
  • Freemium software - Many applications have both a useful free version for personal systems and a paid commercial version. They may be substantially equivalent in function or there may be added features in the commercial version. Because it comes with a license regulating its use, the free version is not freeware in the strict sense.

    Another type of "freemium" software is common on mobile platforms. A useful app can be installed for free but additional features are available by making a payment from within the app.

  • Donationware - This is software where the developer asks for a voluntary donation. If all you see is a request on the developer’s site and that’s the end of it, this is pretty close to true freeware. However, sometimes the request for donations is presented within the software. If the request is persistent, you have the next category.
  • Nagware - This is software that pops up a request for payment every time you use it. Sometimes the nagging only starts after a trial period has elapsed. You can close the request and use the software without payment but it will keep nagging you. Some sort of payment is required to turn the nagging off. 
  • Registerware - We begin to get into a greyer area. In order to download the program, you have to provide an email address. The address may or may not be used to spam you. Or you may end up with a newsletter you might not want.
  • Trialware or Demoware - Software that you can use for free for a short period of time. When the time is up, the software is automatically disabled or crippled. You will often see download links for this type of software labeled “free download”. Payment is required to continue to use the program after the trial period. It is easy to be misled into thinking that this is freeware.
  • Crippleware - Software with a free version that has some or even most of its features disabled (often very useful ones). To get all the features you have to pay. This is another category that can be misleading about how “free” it is.

Software with intrusive or potentially undesirable features

As developers keep searching for ways to make programs generate income, certain types of practices have arisen which many PC users may find objectionable. This takes us to a grey realm in between true freeware and malware.This is a controversial area and a full discussion is beyond the scope of this article. However, there are two categories that need mentioning.

  • Adware - Software that is free but displays ads when you use the program. Programs vary in how aggressive the advertising is. In many apps, the ads are not very distracting and are fairly easy to ignore. Personally, I use several programs that carry ads but I hardly notice them. However, there are also programs where the ads are more intrusive. Individual tolerance for these ads will vary.

    There is also an undesirable type of adware that installs advertising on your PC that runs even when you aren’t using the particular program.  I consider these programs to be a form of malware.

    There is an extensive discussion of adware at this previous article

  • Foistware or bundleware - It is becoming common for software developers to try to monetize their work by bundling a program with toolbars or other programs that also get installed by default unless you are very careful. These days, users of free applications have to be especially vigilant about how they download and install programs. 

    Unfortunately, some big download sites, such as CNET (Download.com) and Softonic are also using proprietary installers that add things you probably don’t want when you install a program. This is why Gizmo's Freeware only recommends Softpedia, MajorGeeks, and FileHippo as safe third party download sources. Care also needs to be taken when obtaining programs directly from the developers own site. Sometimes these download links will redirect to a third party source that is using a wrapped installer.

    For a discussion of how to deal with bundling and wrappers, see the information about this type of practice and how to avoid it on this page. Also, see Gizmo’s article about Open Candy.

What types of software are reviewed at Gizmo's Freeware?

As you can see, the universe of what might be called freeware is complex. The reader will naturally wonder how software is chosen for review at Gizmo's. The basic criterion is that it costs no money to use and is high quality. When a free program clearly offers value but has strings or features that fall into a grey area, discussion among the site's experienced moderators and editors is used to make a decision about including the software.

As always, the moderators and editors at Gizmo’s make every effort to identify  potentially objectionable features in software that is reviewed but ultimate responsibility rests with the user.

For some additional discussion of freeware terms, go to this Wikipedia article.

Thanks go to Gizmo, Jojo, and MC for helpful comments. 

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Thank you for always being detailed and in particular for the clarification about Softpedia, MajorGeeks, and FileHippo.

Unfortunately, FileHippo has also fallen into the practice of using wrappers on some of its offerings.

Would you please explain the advantage to a company of having us install their toolbar. How do they make money if we install it?

From the ads that you will see. For example, if Ask becomes your search engine, search pages will have ads that bring revenue to Ask.

Thank you Laurie. Do you know how much they make off of each hit?


very good article , good information to save confusions I'm going to bookmark this :)
Good article, although your Freemium and Crippleware definitions are identical in practice. One thing for sure, stay away from downloading from CNET. It took me hours to get rid of the show-pass rubbish that they added to the software I wanted.
Although there is some overlap between the freemium and crippleware categories, they differ in how useful the free software is. The free software in the freemium model provides substantial value and is sometimes almost the same as the paid version. Crippleware is generally not all that useful and often has the best features missing.

Excellent Article. I Was there with Jim Button and his PC-File, etc. My shareware never made a cent, DRMENU31 and CUTZIT10, so I made them Freeware.
Notice how they are 8 chrs long.

Remember Nelson Ford and his shareware catalogs sent out? Before the WWW the only way to learn of software was reading printed/mailed catalogs.

Some more "ware" types to discuss are Mine-Field-ware, Crapware, and Postcard-ware. Mine-field happens when you go to install them and every click you make installs an unwanted piece of software to your system. I throw Crapware and Mine-Field-ware into the same category.

Actually no discussion is necessary because anyone can figure out the meanings easily.

Let me end where I began. Excellent "5 star" Article.

David, thank you for taking me down memory lane! I was also there as shareware began to develop but as a consumer not a coder.

And Jim Button (and others) got some money from me :)

The PC users group I went to back in those days had a lending library of shareware on 360 KB 5 1/4" floppy disks. Those were the days when people really knew how to code and you could get a surprising number of programs even in such a small capacity. Of course, DOS itself only had 512 KB of memory to work with.

Thanks v.laurie. You guys do a great job!

A thank-you is really not sufficient to thank you for all the GREAT articles and advice you are providing us with nearly every day of the year.
May the New Year bring you loads of success, inspiration and happiness