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The Internet's Free Lunch

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Virtually free software programs abound on the World Wide Web

Free. In advertising circles, that's a magic word.

Give something away, and you may be able to trick a consumer into purchasing something else. The bad news is that you've probably already been fooled by this ploy. That's one reason they say, there's no such thing as a free lunch.

The good news is that on the Net there's a lot of great stuff out there which really is free. If you've bought a computer recently, you've probably already received loads of free stuff, especially if you got it at an electronics supermarket, department store or mail-order behemoth. The flotsam littering your desktop may include silly games, pointless utilities, redundant and bloated Microsoft this-n-thats, and easy shortcuts to join any one of various national "service providers."

Okay, now delete most of that stuff. Or, at the very least, forget about it. The only tool you need to get everything else you need is your web browser, such as Internet Explorer or Netscape (one of which you surely have if you got your machine in the last three years), and a local Internet service provider.

The products to which I'll refer today are all either "freeware," "shareware" or "evaluation versions."

  • Freeware is a software program which is simply and absolutely free. The developers have produced it with no intention of being paid for this particular product. Microsoft, and more recently Netscape, give away their web browsers for free (www.microsoft. com/ie/download/ and www.net scape.com/download/) in the hopes that you'll be so impressed that you'll purchase their other products.

  • Shareware is a program which is free for a period of time, during which you're meant to evaluate it and decide if it's worth paying for.

  • Evaluation versions of commercial software products are similar to shareware; they are downloadable, but may either have an incomplete set of features or expire after 30 days unless you pay for them.

A few sites are excellent repositories for all sorts of software. At these locations you can conduct searches for programs you want, get them immediately and avoid all shipping charges. The best that I know of are www.download.com, www.software.net, cws.internet.com, and www.macupdate.com.

Some, like download.com, provide you with some hints as to how popular a product is, but the search sites can be overwhelming as they index thousands of products in multiple categories. So, here's your selfless columnist's recommendations for some (mostly) free Internet productivity software on the web:

Graphics editing: Unless you're ready to shell out the big bucks for the industry standard Adobe Photoshop, Paint Shop Pro 5.0, available as an evaluation version from Jasc Software (www.jasc.com) is powerful enough for most users' needs, including support for layers and filters.

For web-specific needs like image size and color optimization, automatic JavaScript authoring and animated graphics, Macromedia's brand new "Fireworks" (www.macromedia.com/ software/fireworks/) application can do it all.

Web Page Authoring: I have a strong aversion to what-you-see-is-what-you-get graphical drag-and-drop HTML editors, mostly because the code that they produce is generally atrocious. They also often have trouble interpreting valid code created by a real human programmer.

But that may be changing with the introduction of Macromedia's new evaluation version of Dreamweaver (www.macromedia.com/software/dreamweaver/). If you want to make web pages without learning HTML, Dreamweaver is as good as it gets.

If, on the other hand, you believe as I do that hand coding HTML is good for the soul, there is no substitute for Allaire's Homesite (www.allaire.com/products/) available as a free evaluation version. I've used this program for more than two years, faithfully upgrading as new versions have been announced, and the thing just keeps getting better.

Web Multimedia: Grabbing a few browser plug-ins can considerably spice up your surfing experience. More and more sites are using Macromedia's Shockwave product to create interactive, animated web pages.

Check out home.earthlink.net/~youngadult/. To get Shockwave (it's free), head for www.macromedia.com/shockwave/download/.

Meanwhile, Real Networks (www.real.com) have positioned themselves as leaders in the popular new field of "streaming" audio and video, which allows sights and sounds to be experienced as they are downloaded. The company's new RealPlayer 5 is absolutely free.

While you may need to buy software for your computer occasionally, your first instinct should always be to look for a free download. There are thousands of software developers out there who want the honor of someone finding their work to be useful, and larger companies certainly like it when they can gain another loyal customer by giving something away.

So pay attention to that magic word free. On the Net, it could be your best friend.


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