Shareware is commercial software that is distributed free to users, either in a limited format or on a trial basis that expires after a set number of days. It was first introduced in the early 1980s, with its popularity rising in the 1990s as personal computing moved into the mainstream in both offices and homes.

The format allows software developers to get their products into the hands of potential users for a test run, in hopes that they decide to purchase the fully functional version of the program.

Shareware is also popular with gamers, as it gives them a chance to try a new game on a limited basis before purchasing the full version.

Shareware or Freeware

Shareware is often confused with freeware, but they have two distinctly different purposes.

Freeware is copyrighted software that is available at no cost for unlimited usage. The developer retains all rights to the program and controls distribution. Users can sometimes purchase additional services or options.

One good example is introductory antivirus software that protects your computer at no cost but also offers premium packages with more sophisticated protection.

With shareware, users are encouraged to share the limited version of the software to promote larger distribution and sales. It's not synonymous with open source software, which is source code available to anyone with the software's license for the purpose of allowing collaborative effort between developers studying the code.

Types of Shareware

Various types of shareware are available, but not all of them are desirable. They include:

  • Adware: Adware is most often distributed through freeware software (but there are instances when it is included in shareware software). It allows the developer to potentially make money from ads in the program, even if users don't purchase the full software.

    Unfortunately, adware could also find information on a computer and share it with advertisers to help them tailor online ads to specific users. It could even act maliciously and inject a system with Trojans. Adware is usually loaded onto a computer undetected.
  • Demoware: This software provides a demo or trial of the application to users. A subset of demoware is crippleware, which keeps the shareware from performing vital functions unless the full version is purchased. For example, crippleware could prevent document printing or prevent access to a full suite of templates.
  • Donationware: Donationware is a fully functional and operational shareware application, but a donation is requested to support future development or, in some cases, to support a charitable cause or nonprofit organization.

Shareware Security Concerns

Cybercriminals can use shareware to distribute malware using tactics that are similar to those used in other socially engineered attacks. Users are fooled into believing URL links — often in ads — are legitimate, but the links take them to pages where they download malware instead of a safe shareware application.

While all types of software are at risk of vulnerabilities and flaws that could lead to malicious attacks, shareware is particularly at risk. Because the programs aren’t fully licensed, patches and upgrades aren't available, and that can put a system at risk. This is especially true when software that is no longer used is left on a computer.

Some shareware (and freeware) applications offer users the chance to download another application as an additional option. In fact, the box agreeing to it is often already checked by default, allowing the extra software to download automatically. Although the software could be perfectly legitimate, this is also a way for scammers to trick users into unwittingly downloading something malicious.

Shareware is an excellent option for those who want to sample a piece of software before making an expensive purchase or who only have a one-time need for a specific application. However, users must remember that downloading these programs comes with some risk. It's important to make sure a site is legitimate with up-to-date security before downloading any software program.

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