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Emerging Threats

Shareware: An overview + the cost of ‘free’ software

A young man sits on the floor looking at ways to protect himself from shareware and other online threats.

February 8, 2022

Shareware Definition

Shareware is a type of commercially produced software that is offered free to consumers on a trial basis. The ultimate goal of the software developer is to convert the free user to a paying customer down the line. 

Commercial software is often too pricey for individual consumers to buy, so they look to alternative sources for needed programs. Shareware can satisfy this need by providing software at no upfront cost to the user. Sounds too good to be true, right?  

Correct, oftentimes a closer look into the terms of service reveals there are usually strings attached to shareware. These terms typically impact how long a product can be used or how it functions. Worse yet, sometimes shareware software can put your personal data and financial security in jeopardy, so keeping yourself protected should always be at the forefront of your mind when using this type of software.   

What is shareware?

Shareware is a type of commercially produced software that is offered free to consumers on a trial basis, often relying on users to share the software with their peers. After the trial is over, the consumer is faced with the decision to pay for the service or to cease using the software altogether.  

There are many types of software that fall under the shareware umbrella that take different approaches to distribution. Some formats only provide users with limited functionality, and withhold more advanced features for paying customers only. This act alone is a strong motivator to convert users to paying customers.  

Shareware vs. freeware

A comparison chart distinguishes the key differences between shareware and freeware.


Freeware is a closely related cousin to shareware, and it’s important to know the differences in the goals of each. Freeware has no costs associated with the software and there is no time limit placed on its usage. Sometimes there will be the option to donate to the developers, but this does not influence the consumer's access to the product. 

Shareware differs because the sole intention is to convert free users to paying customers. This intention then feeds into a larger business plan established by the developer.  

History of shareware 

The first forms of shareware can be traced back to the early 1980s when programmers began requesting donations from their users. This was revolutionary because it provided affordable yet high-quality programs to the public when the commercial alternatives were hundreds of dollars. 

In the 2000s, many commercial platforms made it impossible to share software even when it was legally permissible. This was meant to protect the digital copyrights of software developers, but the shareware community was negatively impacted as a result. 

Over the last four decades, hundreds of thousands of games and programs have been created using the shareware business model. Although its current application has morphed from what it originally was, shareware can still be found all over the internet. 

Types of shareware

Six illustrations and explanations highlight the different types of shareware, including adware, donationware, trialware, nagware, freemium, and crippleware.

 


Although many shareware developers have benign intentions, bad actors do exist. Instead of trying to share software to grow a legitimate business, some of these developers resort to malicious tactics to make dishonest money.  

Identifying these types of shareware are and knowing how they work can help you protect your computer and yourself. Fortunately, many of their names are self-explanatory and can give a strong understanding of how
they work. 

Adware

Adware displays advertisements within a browser or program as a way to monetize content. This type of shareware may be utilized as a way for a developer to make legitimate money from their software but it’s also commonly abused. It can spam your browser with unwanted pop-ups and slow down its functionality.  

Adware often gathers personal information from your device and shares it with advertisers so that they can target a user more effectively. Malicious adware sometimes uses Trojan viruses. These viruses can steal banking information and cost you far more than the fee to use valid software. 

Demoware

Demoware is another type of shareware that can come in two forms: trialware and crippleware. Although their applications are dif ferent, their intention is the same in that they offer users demo periods of access before they are forced to pay for a service.          

  • Trialware gives users a set time in which they can use the software. When the allowed number of days expires the user is cut off until they provide payment. It is an effective tactic because it removes the danger of buyer’s remorse for the consumer. They can experience the product risk-free and decide if it is worth the price.         
  • Crippleware places limitations on the vital functions of the shareware. The developer chooses which functions are off-limits. This can take the form of a reduced selection of graphic design templates, or the complete removal of the ability to export a file. This can back the user into a corner where they need to pay to get the product they want.  

Donationware

The most altruistic form of shareware takes the form of donationware. Instead of placing severe limitations on the performance of the software, donationware is fully operational. The developer will instead request a donation from the users as compensation for their labor or even ask them to fund future updates. In other cases, the donations could go directly to a nonprofit.  

Freemium software

Freemium is a relatively newer term in the world of shareware that came about with the rise of online and mobile gaming. These are truly free services that give users the option to enhance their experience by purchasing premium upgrades. This can take the form of buying otherwise unplayable characters or superior equipment.  

The biggest risk with freemium software is not realizing you are making a purchase with real money. If a child is playing a game with a linked bank account they can accidentally rack up expensive charges without realizing
it. 

Nagware

As the name implies, nagware is designed to give users repeated reminders to pay for a software license. These reminders can be so frequent and inconvenient that they render the software nearly unusable. 

Think of pop-up windows that continually appear in a mobile game, asking you to pay for the game to remove ads. Even if the ads are unobtrusive, it may be worth the purchase simply to remove the constant alert. The only way to remove the nagging of nagware is to complete the action they are requesting. 

Shareware cybersecurity risks

The affordability that shareware offers can be difficult to pass up. If you intend to use it, there are some known cybersecurity risks to be aware of.        

  • Malware: A malicious software sometimes hidden within the software or within links to outside sources, that can lead to viruses being downloaded on your devices.        
  • Spyware: A type of malware that spies on a user's activity, oftentimes to gather
    sensitive information via a data breach or to be used toward identity theft.
  • Zero-Day exploits: Software security flaws that hackers are exploiting but the developer is unaware of. 
  • Affiliated software: The shareware developer may earn a commission by linking to other programs for download, but there is no guarantee these secondary programs are protecting user data and privacy.

Cyber Safety tips for using shareware

: Five illustrious accompany the main dos and don’ts to keep in mind to help protect yourself from shareware.


Despite the known risks of shareware, there are some best practices you can follow to protect your devices and your data.

Beware of ads

People are so accustomed to seeing ads on their screens that they often let their guards down around them. Some people don’t even acknowledge they are there, while others don’t think twice about clicking to learn more.  

Advertisements being so commonplace is what makes them such a threat. Malware can easily be hidden behind ads that seem legitimate. It can sometimes be hard to discern a legitimate ad from a nefarious one. Even well-known brands can be forged, so avoid clicking them if possible. 

Look out for bundled software

Even if the program you want is safe to install, there is a chance it is being bundled with other programs that are malicious. This is done to add credibility to the other programs. If one is safe, then a person is more likely to assume the other programs are, too.  

To avoid this threat, be sure to read all notices associated with the download. It may even be possible to opt out of downloading the unnecessary programs, so you’ll only get what you want and know is safe. 

Keep shareware up to date

It can become tedious needing to update an app to use it, which makes it tempting to ignore the update in favor of the older version. This will not only impact your user experience, but it can also affect your cybersecurity.  

Oftentimes, updates are rolled out with security patches to block a known threat. By ignoring an update, you can make yourself the target of an otherwise avoidable virus or hack. If a program is no longer used but remains on the device, it can be the entry point of a security breach. Because of this, it’s a good idea to remove any programs that are no longer relevant. 

Use security measures on sites offering shareware

Even if you are certain the program you are about to install is safe, the website you are getting it from should be vetted as well. If the site does not have up-to-date security, then the safety of every program on the platform needs to be called into question. Programs that were previously safe may now be compromised. 

Any reputable site will take the necessary precautions to protect its customers and reputation. For instance, any website that is not using HTTPS to secure its website should be passed over for one that is.  

Consider antivirus software

Cybercriminals are constantly improving their tactics so that even the most tech-savvy online users can fall victim to them. When your judgment falls short, a trusted antivirus software can have your back. It can catch what your eyes don’t and prevent your private information from being exposed.  

By following proper Cyber Safety measures, you will be able to make use of all the benefits shareware stands to offer. And if you have already fallen prey to a malicious program, don’t scrap your computer just yet. There are effective ways to remove malware from an infected device. 

Shareware FAQs

Here are a few answers to frequently asked questions about shareware.

Is shareware safe?

Shareware is by and large safe to use, but it still poses certain cybersecurity risks, such as spyware, malware, and more. Follow the same safety measures that should be applied toward all program downloads and shareware can be used with confidence.

What is an example of shareware?

Developers offer shareware that includes file archivers, file compressors, computer games, and more. Many of these programs were created decades ago and are still used to this day, proving shareware can be a safe and effective means of software distribution for both developers and consumers.

Is shareware free forever?

Shareware programs have different policies for use. Some have time limits placed on the free use of their software, while others permanently limit certain functions. The developer’s primary motivation in sharing their software for free is to eventually convert users into paying customers. Be sure you understand how this will affect its use before installing the program.

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