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The joy of downloads

Software downloads used to attract only pirates and shareware folks. Now they're pervasive. Contributor Mike Gunderloy explains how developers can best use them and provides a list of his own favorites.

Not so very many years ago, downloadable software for the PC was the province of two small fringe groups. On the one hand, you had the shareware folks, who had this crazy marketing idea that "try before you buy" would help them sell software. On the other hand were the pirates, who didn't so much care what software they could download, so long as it was stolen from somewhere and they didn't have to pay for it.

VB, .NET downloads
Click here for Mike's list of top downloads for good VB or .NET developers.
Shareware vendors and pirates are still out there, of course, but the downloading landscape has changed considerably in the past decade. I think it's safe to say we've reached the point where having a downloadable version of your software is an expected part of being a software publisher. Oh, there are some niches where this isn't the case (some extremely expensive applications, or completely custom "one-off" programs, for example), but for the most part, if you want to try a program you can expect to do so for only the time it takes you to download it.

But this doesn't mean things worked out the way that either the pirates or the shareware advocates thought they would. Sure, you can still find plenty of pirated software out there (and thanks to the hysteria of the major media and various legislators, everyone knows what a horrible threat to civilization file-sharing networks are these days). And you can still find true shareware: fully-functional software where only your conscience forces you to pay when the trial period is up. But these are plenty of other models for online code distribution vying for your attention as well.

For starters, you can't ignore the rise of open-source software. Many people argue at great length about whether it's good or bad for the industry that there is all this source code available for free with licensing provisions that prevent it being used in traditional closed-source projects, but politics aside, the open-source movement serves as a vast repository of interesting software for all of us. On the far end of the spectrum, just about every commercial software publisher now makes available some sort of time- or feature-limited trial version of its software.

And progress never stands still. Instead of just downloading software, you can now download entire computers, thanks to the wonders of virtual computing. VMWare's new VMTN site lets you download preconfigured virtual machines with software from vendors including Red Hat, Novell, Oracle and MySQL, already configured and ready to run, making it easier than ever for you to try things out before making a commitment.

Microsoft, too, seems to be moving in this direction, having recently released a beta version of Visual Studio Team System as a preconfigured Virtual PC image to MSDN subscribers.

If you haven't been paying attention to the world of downloadable software, you've been missing out on a huge resource that can make your work as a VB developer more productive, professional, and even fun. I recently reviewed some of my own online haunts and came up with a large handful of downloads that I think are well worth checking out. Some are targeted at VB6 developers, some at VB .NET folks, and some are for all of us. There are a mix of free, open source, and commercial trial applications ranging from simple little add-ins to full-blown application generators. Click here to see the list of downloads.

Whatever your level of proficiency or use of the language, I think you'll find something interesting in the list. Take some time to check out these picks - and then make a point of keeping up with what's going on in the software world. Think of it as an essential part of your continuing education as a good developer.

Mike Gunderloy is an independent developer and author working in eastern Washington state. His recent books include Painless Project Management with FogBugz (Apress) and Coder to Developer (Sybex). You can read more of Mike's work at his Larkware Web site, or contact him at MikeG1@larkfarm.com.

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