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Where's the best shareware today?

This column originally ran in ComputorEdge on February 4, 2005
(Issue 2305, The Right App for the Job)

When the Internet was first opened to the public in the late 1980s, early 1990s, there was no friendly World Wide Web for finding things.

The 'Net then was a text-based environment – generally a Unix prompt. There was e-mail, although not like we know it now (you read your messages online, in Unix programs like Pine or Elm).

There was the Usenet, where you could read and post messages in a couple hundred different newsgroups (today, there are tens of thousands of newsgroups, although many are basically dead).

And there were files to download – generally shareware, freeware and public domain, which you could pull to your own computer via FTP.

Still, most of us stayed on our local dial-up bulletin board systems, or BBSs, for online access, because you had all of those features – e-mail, newsgroups and files – on your local BBS, plus a menu system that was much easier to navigate for most of us than Unix.

It was, in fact, shareware that was at least partially responsible for making BBSs so popular in the late 1980s. Before Castle Wolfenstein or Doom made iD into a massively successful software publishing venture, the company had published a series of arcade scrollers known as Commander Keen.

Operating on a shoestring budget and desperate for a buzz of any kind, iD released a shareware version of each Keen game and let BBS system operators, or sysops, post the shareware version in their files area.

Sysops loved this because it gave folks like me a reason to visit their board; helped generate a sense of community – or, for subscription board, helped generate revenue.

iD loved it because after you completed the first couple of levels, you had to call them and purchase the game in order to finish it. Commander Keen being fairly addictive (we still play it on our XP box!), the tease method of promotion worked.

Moving to the 'Net

In the early days of the pre-Web Internet, and even in the mid-1990s as the Web began to take over, there wasn't a whole lot of content available.

But software publishers, particularly iD, realized that with the advent of public Internet access, the could establish a direct connection with the end user – that they no longer needed the BBS as middle man.

In the age of the BBS, if your regular board didn't have a shareware game you wanted, you had to hang up, and dial another. What with the log-in procedures, the waiting for the modem connections and all, it could be tedious and time-consuming.

With a direct Internet connection, all of a sudden you could directly visit any server online with just one phone call.

And so iD could simply set up a Web site and put its shareware games there.

Still, with hundreds and even thousands of software publishers on the scene in the mid-1990s, finding shareware was a bit of a piece of work.

So sites like and arose to serve as a sort of central BBS or repository of shareware titles. Some of them didn't even have the files stored locally; they simply contained links.

The current situation

A few years back, c|net combined and into a single site.

Today, though, while remains a clearly branded portion of c|net (and has been renamed, although both still work), seems to have been spun back off into a different effort (although still owned by c|net). is by far the easier to navigate and find programs on. There are tens of thousands of titles here, for Windows and Mac, organized by type of file, and you can search as well. claims more than 40,000 titles, and includes a Linux category. It also seems a good place to find the latest shareware releases.

Zdnet, a onetime competitor to c|net since bought out by that very same former competitor, offers a downloads site at It may very well be simply a miror of the c|net stuff above, however.

But in terms of really polished, professional sites offering shareware, that's about it. In fact, there are fewer top-rank shareware sites today than I've ever seen online. There are still some high-quality programs to be had inexpensively, but finding them isn't as easy as it once was.

With the rise of spyware, adware and other malicious junk on the 'Net, finding a safe site where you can download shareware without fear of having your PC hijacked is tougher than ever.