Free Software Has a Price Tag

We love free software, and we use a lot of it. Programs like Adobe Reader, Java, media players and browsers come immediately to mind as indispensable tools. But they can get pretty costly pretty quickly, unless you look before you click.

It’s really easy to download free software with strings attached – especially from Google. Here’s a typical scenario:

  • You want to download the Google Chrome browser. It’s free.
  • You type Google Chrome into the search box – using Google.
  • What do you see first? You see an ad for a free download, but who is offering it?

Here’s a hint: It’s not Google. We strongly urge you NOT to find out the answer to this. It’s not because we want to single out this particular third-party program provider. Rather, we want to suggest what may be behind a provider’s free offer.

That third party might be collecting data about you to sell to its customers who have an interest in selling you something. They could be putting cookies on your computer to track where you browse and then send you ads and spam. That could be an annoyance and an invasion of your privacy, even though you likely agreed to accept those cookies without even realizing it.

At worst, you could be downloading a Trojan horse that could put some serious malware and/or spyware on your computer. It could also compromise your address book and get to any financial information or passwords stored on your computer. We guarantee you’ll get some sort of infection on your machine.

Some of those “free” offers also offer help with the application or with some aspect of your computer’s operation. Here are two more guarantees: They’re not going to help you, and you’ll have to go through a long, aggravating process to get rid of their “help.”

We don’t think of these consequences often enough. We tend to download free software when we need it to continue something we started. You might need Adobe Reader to open a PDF file. You might need RealPlayer to watch a video a friend just sent you. You might need Java to fill out a form. You might need to update Chrome – or Firefox or Internet Explorer – to access information on a website.

The temptation is to simply click on the first link we see because it’s convenient and because we’re rushing or trying to do two things at once. Our advice: Slow down. Look before you click, even if it’s the software publisher.

Yes, the publisher can create problems, too. Many have marketing partners, and their products are part of the free download. You need to look carefully to remove accepting those partners before you click to activate the download. Yes, you can get rid of those partners and all the baggage they load onto your browser and computer, but it’s a pain in the neck. It’s one of the biggest complaints we get.

The solution, of course, is to look before you click. There will always be strings attached to “free” offers, but you can keep them from tying up computing resources or even wreaking havoc on your computer by taking that little bit of extra time. Go to the publisher of that program you want and get it directly. Look closely at everything that site offers and make sure you agree that you want whatever you download.

If you have any questions or need help getting rid of unwanted software, please contact us (973-433-6676 or [email protected]. We won’t say we told you so. We’ll just remind you to look before you click.

This article was published in Technology Update, the monthly newsletter from Sterling Rose LLC.