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Paying the price for free software

There's a lot of money in the software business, but hardly any of it came from me.

I paid $99 last year for a subscription to Microsoft Corp.'s Office 365 suite, and spent a buck or two on some smartphone apps. But the great majority of my PC, phone and tablet apps haven't cost me a cent.

Like nearly everyone else, I rely on software downloaded at no charge. Yet for unwary users, a lot of free software can end up costing quite a bit more than they'd expect.

Consider the ongoing skirmish between the Federal Trade Commission and retailer Amazon.com. The FTC wants Amazon to change the way apps work on the company's Kindle tablets, particularly ones designed for children. Many free apps allow users to pay for enhanced features -- for instance, videogame apps that let you buy extra powers or tools to make the game more fun. Kids have run up thousand of dollars this way, to the horror of their parents.

Apple Inc. paid $32.5 million to settle a similar FTC complaint in January, but last week Amazon told the FTC that it'll go to court to resist any further tightening of its in-app purchase policies. Perhaps Amazon and its app developers don't want to sacrifice the extra income.


App makers have good reason to worry about revenue. There are over 1.2 million apps for Apple devices and about the same number for Google Inc.'s Android devices. But the great majority of these apps don't make money and never will, the market research firm Gartner Inc. reported in January. Hence the reluctance to sacrifice any opportunity to make apps pay.


Free mobile apps can be annoying, but free software for desktop computers can be downright scary. Just a few days ago, my wife needed to convert a video file from one format to another. I downloaded a free converter program from the popular site Download.com, and clicked the green button marked "accept."

But the green button didn't go away. I clicked it again and again. Big mistake.

Download.com wasn't just installing the program I wanted. With each mouse click I'd given permission to install other programs. Call them adware, spyware, malware, or just plain junkware, these programs can sap your machine's processing power and interfere with your favorite programs and services. Suddenly unwanted ads start popping up on your screen, or an ugly, confusing new toolbar glues itself inside your browser. Apple Inc.'s Mac computers aren't immune; Download.com's free Mac software includes plenty of junkware.

In my case, some alien search service infested my wife's Windows 7 machine, blocking access to Google and displaying blank pop-up windows for no apparent reason. I spent the next half-hour cleaning up the mess.

I phoned Download.com for an explanation. An executive who asked not to be named told me that the site never installs harmful software, but it does routinely offer these little extras. Download.com and the free software makers earn money by agreeing to install the extra programs alongside the ones that people really want.

Download.com could do without the dough; it's owned by media titan CBS Corp. But for small software makers, it's often their only way to make a living.


But not at my expense -- or yours. Don't give up on free software; just be careful. Look for useful programs at sites like Download.com, because it has an excellent index of the best free software. But don't download software there. Instead, go to the developer's own website. This will reduce your risk, but not eliminate it, because the developer may also try to install parasitic programs.

So during the installation process, read the fine print. There's usually a way to refuse these junkware programs by unchecking a box or clicking a button marked "decline." If you're careful, you can keep your machine clean. If you mess up, go to the Windows control panel and try to uninstall the bad stuff. On Windows 7, you can sort all programs by installation date, so just wipe out all the newest installs. To uninstall from a Mac, just drag the app to the trash can.

But I've run across Windows junkware that refuses to be uninstalled. That's the time to unleash an excellent clean-up program called Malwarebytes Anti-Malware. It'll scour your machine in about 20 minutes and can identify and remove the most hated junkware programs.

The deluxe version costs $25 a year and can block malware before you're infected. But a basic version costs nothing, and unlike many other free programs, it comes with no junkware attached. Get it at malwarebytes.org.


Of course, there’s an easier way to avoid the hassle. We could just start paying full price for all our software. Like that’s ever going to happen.

Hiawatha Bray can be reached at hiawatha.bray@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeTechLab.