Is there a special, unwritten set of rules for downloading freeware? I’d like to think there are—for me, at least. For even though I’m “that guy” at Maximum PC, perhaps the only (former) editor to actually come close to pushing past one’s monthly Comcast bandwidth limits, I still have to keep my trips through freeware land in some kind of perspective. And you should too.
So what, gentle sir or madam, compels you to grab a particular piece of software? That’s the crux of what I’ll be tackling in this week’s column—the first in a long time, mind you, thanks to an unruly show schedule on my part (I missed you too). But I digress. In my non-writing time, I’ve been doing a bunch of downloading, analyzing, and tweaking on the various devices I own, and I’ve noticed that all of my extended file-hunting sessions always have a few themes in common.
First off, the surest way to get me to check out a piece of software is to convince one of my friends or colleagues that it is awesome. The Power of the Recommendation, as it was. But let’s clarify an important point—following me on Twitter or finding me on Facebook (where I use the pseudonym, “Nathan Edwards”) doesn’t mean that we’re about to go prancing down to the beach hand-in-hand on the weekends. That ain’t friendship, nor does it constitute an automatic-download for said recommended app.
It’s one of the chief reasons why I find services like AppBrain (for Android devices) and Pandora (a thousand times, yes) so useful. A trusted source that knows your likes and dislike fairly well is worth a thousand great reviews. My friends don’t just suggest applications and programs that are, themselves, awesome; more importantly, these people (or Web services) often find those few programs clustered away in corners of the Internet that I might not otherwise notice in my own extensive searching. Or, to put it another way, trusted recommendations often expose me to unique bits and bytes that I would have never found myself.
Now, recommendations in hand, do I just go about downloading every single program or application my friends use? No! Nor should you! Were it up to me, I’d find a way to automatically launch my desktop in its fresh-off-of-a-virgin-installation state every single day. You know, that beautiful, crisp look of an operating system that has yet to be violated by application overload. I hate having a ton of semi-used apps on my system.
So how, then, does one separate the digital wheat from the chaff? It’s all about the presentation. This isn’t the rule to end all rules, but my interest in an application tends to wane if its official homepage is either non-existent (strike one), looks like it was coded on Geocities in 1998 (strike two), or features text that’s pretty much unintelligible (like this paragraph; strike three). I figure that a quality application at least has developers that are willing to go that extra mile—add that last bit of spice to the soup—to deliver basic information and screenshots that spell out exactly why I should go about sticking said program on my desktop system.
After all, if I can’t trust a person to put together at least the most simple of landing pages for an application, then what’s to say that said app’s user interface isn’t going suffer the same lazy treatment? Its features, not-quite-so bug tested? Its help file or tutorials akin to a third grader’s end-of-year essay?
And that’s about it. You could argue that this column is nothing but common sense, but if that was the case, than sites like Download.com—or their many, many equivalents—would cease to exist. For I do scope out the giant cattle call directories of applications from time to time just to see what’s in the popular eye. And it’s a terrifying process. People really do download the most worthless, poorly constructed applications, “just cause.”
So there you have it. Listen to your (sensible) peers or trust reviewers and blogs that know what they’re doing, and trust your gut when it comes to the crappy-or-awesome presentation of an application. You’ll spare yourself extended trips to the Revo Uninstaller window. Simple steps for software success, but important ones to put on a Post-It note next to your PC! You know, I bet there’s an app for that…
David Murphy, a former Maximum PC editor, has nothing witty to say in today's tiny biography. Nor does he really use Twitter that much, so trying to befriend him on there will be of little use! So. Um. How are things on your end? Go freeware!