What is a freeware?

Posted by Greten on 04 Sep 2013 under Terms

In one of my earlier posts, I describe how free software and open-source software are actually one and the same and thus are commonly called free/open-source software or FOSS. Both terms refer to software programs that are freely distributed and with source code available. These two terms were coined by two different factions with the same goal but two different approaches.

Now, this leaves a question. There are software programs that you can use freely but the source code is not available for modifications. What do we call these programs? The term that commonly applies to them is freeware.

Definition of freeware

Freewares are software programs that you can install and use in your computer but you cannot modify it due to the nonavailability of source code. The author of the program retains the copyright and may dictate the channels through which it is distributed. Some freeware authors would allow, or even encourage, others to pass the program around, while others would mandate that the software be obtainable only from their official channels.

The license for its use also varies. Some freeware licenses seek only to ensure that it is freely distributed, kind of like FOSS minus the source codes. Others can have long complicated licenses similar to purchasable software programs. Similar to FOSS, they usually contain provisions wherein the author of the program would not be liable for damages that arises due its use.

Similar concepts

Unlike the phrases "free software" and "open-source software", there are no organizations that maintain an official definition of a "freeware". Thus, there might be some disagreements of what constitutes a freeware. The following kinds of software programs may or may not be considered freeware. These kinds are also not mutually exclusive: some programs may fall under more than one kind.Chinese coin with floppy disk in the square hole at the center.

  • shareware - free toned-down versions of proprietary software. They have restrictions such as usable only within certain number of days (usually 10 to 30 days) or having some of the features unusable. Using it beyond the limited days or accessing all features require you to purchase the full upgrade. AVG Antivirus is an example of shareware. Although it can provide the most needed protection in its free version, its paid version provides additional security features.
  • adware - software programs that shows advertisement somewhere in its interface. Many downloadable Flash games such as Hangaroo are adware. Eudora e-mail client comes in three flavors, a downgraded free version, a paid version, and a version with ads. Microsoft Office 2010 Starter Edition is both a shareware and an adware because it has limited features as compare to standard Microsoft Office 2010 (includes only Word and Excel) and has a panel on the right that displays ads.
  • abandonware - old proprietary software that the developers no longer support and no longer willing to enforce their copyrights. An abandonware can become a freeware by a simple declaration by the developers or by altering the license. However, as its name imply, they are already abandoned. The developers do not have time to either alter the license or go after those who just download and copy the software. Several old DOS-based programs like Wordstar and Lotus123 fall in this category. In theory, the owners of abandonware can resurface and start enforcing their rights again, but I never heard of any case that this actually happened.

Freeware and education

Most of the software programs released with education in mind were released as proprietary, FOSS, or web-based. Thus, I find it difficult to look for educational freeware programs. In the table below, I'm already stretching the meaning of "educational" because these software can be useful not just in education but also in several other things. While we could also stretch the meaning of freeware to include FOSS (we can say that FOSS are simply freeware that includes the source code) and web-based programs, I would no longer go there because they are and will be extensively discussed in the currently published and future posts.

FOSS use source
Chrome web browser download here
Fractint fractals imaging download here
Mac OS Calculator calculator bundled with Mac OS
Opera web browser download here
Sky Globle planetarium or star map download here
Windows Calculator calculator bundled with Windows OS


  • Bellevue Linux Users Group (2006) "Freeware Definition", The Linux Information Project, retrieved 24 August 2013
  • Rouse M. (2006) "What is freeware?", TechTarget, retrieved 24 August 2013

Last updated on 09 Dec 2018.

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