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What is Shareware?

By R. Kayne
Updated May 16, 2024
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Shareware is software that is readily available to download online for a free trial evaluation. At the end of the trial period the user is bound by the electronic user license agreement (EULA) to either uninstall the software, or pay for its continued use.

Shareware trial periods vary from a few days to a month, as stated in the EULA. Some software, including many gaming programs, have a trial period based on the number of times a program is opened, rather than the number of days it has been installed on a computer. For example, if a shareware program has an evaluation scheme that allows 30 uses, the program will continue to work until it has been executed 30 times. This may take one person several months, while another might try the program 30 times in just a few days.

Some shareware programs have built-in mechanisms to protect the author’s copyright after the trial period has expired. At this point when the user goes to open the program, an error box or popup screen will appear informing the user that the trial period has ended. The popup might ask for a registration key, normally supplied when payment is made. By clicking on a link to a website, one can make a payment and receive a registration key or serial number.

Other forms of shareware utilize “crippled” evaluation copies. These programs are designed to give the user a good idea of what the software does, without unlocking the entire program. Some scriptwriting software will not allow the user to save more than a few pages of script, for example, without buying the package. Other types of shareware might not allow users to save, print or export work. Crippled shareware is not as popular as fully functioning shareware, as users tend to like to give software a full workout before deciding if it is worth purchasing.

Once a user purchases shareware, the license is good for the current version of the program. The EULA will state if subsequent versions are also covered by the purchase. In decades past, a purchase was good for the life of a product, qualifying the user to free upgrades indefinitely. This is not often the case anymore, as an author’s work to improve software by making it compliant with changing operating systems and standards is highly time-intensive.

Incremental versions of a program are normally covered by the purchased license, while a change from, for instance, version 5.x to 6.0, will require a new purchase. This is generally because incremental versions are improvements on the original code, while a change in version number to the next greatest integer indicates a significant overhaul of the code. Authors consider this “a new program.”

Shareware differs from freeware in that the user agrees to uninstall or pay for shareware at some point. Freeware does not require payment. Adware does not require payment but does require the software interface to host advertisements. Software that sends back information about the user to the author(s) is called spyware. Spyware and adware are generally unpopular forms of software. Shareware should not contain advertisements or spyware.

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Discussion Comments
By Potterspop — On Apr 23, 2011

I have just had my first experience with a shareware drawing program and I am totally hooked. I had enough time to try it out and the actual purchase price was less than $50. As I only need it for one or two projects I'm more than happy. It also came with clear instructions and guides for use, which was very helpful.

By Acracadabra — On Apr 20, 2011

@Windchime - Hey, I wouldn't worry about being wary of shareware sites. Being cautious is sensible, and may well help you avoid trouble. My friend develops shareware games and I help him promote them, so I know a few things about this topic.

Firstly I think you are better off looking at established sites or forums. Places where developers socialise online are more reliable than trawling the web for leads. You could ask about whatever you are looking for there.

Generally shareware costs are quite low, and people tend to use things like PayPal over credit cards to accept your payment. Someone like my friend isn't set up to accept anything else, it's just not cost effective.

Finally, I would avoid free shareware, unless you can really trust the source.

By Windchime — On Apr 18, 2011

I've been looking at the various freeware and shareware options for a while but there are a few things which worry me. The major issue right now concerns bugs.

I can't afford to have my computer security messed with. How can I be sure that there will be no spyware attached to a shareware download?

A secondary worry is how I would pay for the product, presuming I find it useful and it all works well for me? I don't feel comfortable using a credit card online.

Maybe it would just be easier to go and buy the software from a store! Maybe I worry a bit too much, but it would be great to save cash as what I want is not really an essential program.

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