The Internet

This article covers some of the ins and outs of downloading and installing software from the Internet. Includes discussion of software categories, types of zip (compressed) files, and manual and setup installations.

Downloading Software from the Internet

Introduction

One of the most popular Internet pastimes is downloading software. Little wonder - tens of thousands of well-written, useful programs are available on the Internet - many of them at absolutely no cost! The following guidelines should help you to download files safely and easily and without making a mess of your computer system's hard disk.

What's Available

Just about any kind of software you can imagine is available as a download on the Internet: word processors, spreadsheets, graphics programs, ftp clients, mail clients, newsreaders, and many, many more, including thousands of programs written for specific niche applications.

Downloads usually fall into one of these overall categories:
  • Freeware

  • Freeware has often been placed in the public domain by its author. Anyone can have it for free for personal use. However, it must not be sold and often a license is required for large-scale commercial use. Some authors request that you send them a postcard saying whether or not you find the program useful and any other comments you wish to make.

  • Shareware

  • Shareware is a marketing tool used by individual authors who would like to sell a program but do not have a big marketing budget. Instead of mounting the expensive ad campaign necessary to reach large numbers of potential customers, they distribute their program at no charge through shareware channels such as Internet download sites. Their hope is that at least some users will respect their request that you register the program after 30 or 60 days if you are still using it. Registration fees are usually very modest (almost always between five and thirty-five dollars) and often entitle the user to a printed manual, update notifications, and perhaps even tech support. Some shareware versions may be "crippled", i.e. certain features disabled until the program is registered.

  • Demos

  • Demos are demonstration versions of commercial software. They are almost always limited to a certain period of time after which they cease to function. Alternatively they may have certain critical functions disabled. As with shareware, demos are a way for publishers to get you to try their product in the hope that you will decide to purchase it.


Where to Get It

There are many sites on the Internet from which software can be downloaded. Throw the keywords "software downloads" or "shareware" into your preferred search engine and you'll get plenty of leads.

Sites that download software are actually FTP (file transfer protocol) sites, although this is often not apparent because many of them offer a "browsable" interface using the http (hypertext transfer protocol) service of the WWW. Files are downloaded using the FTP capabilities built into your browser.

How to Get It

Following is a general description of finding and downloading a program at a download site. It should be typical of the experience at most of the sites found on More Mania.

Often the first step is to specify what platform you want to use the program on. Platform refers to your operating system, MS-Windows or Macintosh for example.

Some sites offer a choice between searching for a program or just browsing through the available programs by category. If only the search option is available keep in mind that in addition to searching for programs by title (example: "As Easy As"), you can also search by category ("Spreadsheets"). In either case, all the programs which match your criteria will be listed - so many per page in a fashion similar to that of search engine results.

Each listed program will have a brief description and the name of the program as a hyperlink. When you see a program of interest, click on its hyperlink to see a more detailed description as well as a list of sites from which the it can be downloaded.

Sometimes download sources are rated for their dependability/availability. When choosing a site one strategy is to pick one which is physically nearest you because it would use the least Internet resources, making it potentially faster. But you might also consider picking a site further away, where the local time is outside of business hours. This is because some sites are hosted as a courtesy by businesses whose server's primary purpose is to carry commercial traffic during business hours. Also, sites which are listed as "mirrors" are usually a good bet because they use high-powered, large-capacity servers which are often faster than the primary sources.

Once you've selected a download site, you will be presented with a save dialog box where you indicate the destination for the file on your hard disk. All the most recent Windows versions include a dedicated DOWNLOADS folder. If you plan to download many software titles you might consider using Windows Explorer to create a subfolder for them, something like DOWNLOADS\SOFTWARE.

Zippity doo-dah!

Once the download has completed you'll find the file in the destination folder.

Although most download sites carefully screen their downloads to insure they do not contain malware, and your Anti-Virus's shield probably also screened the file as it downloaded, it can never hurt to open up you A-V scanner at this point and have it scan the folder containing the download. Always better to be safe than sorry!

What you do next depends somewhat on the type of file that you downloaded. Here are the possibilities:

  • Zip file

  • If the file has a .ZIP extension, it is a zip(ped) file. A zipped file can be one file or many files which have been compressed into a "container" file whose size is smaller than the size(s) of the original file(s). This is done in order to a) save space in secondary storage, and b) save download time. Before the file(s) can be used, it (they) must be un-compressed, or un-zipped.

    Recent versions of MS-Windows include a built-in Zip utility, but if yours doesn't there are many offerings from third-partys which can be easily downloaded from nearly every download site.

    Using a Zip program is a piece of cake. Just start the program, point it at the zipped file and tell it to extract the files. When the dust settles you will have the zip file and all the individual files extracted and ready for use.

  • Self-extracting zip file

  • Caution! Self-extracting zips are one of the most common vehicles for the spread of malware. NEVER double-click one until you are completely satisfied that it harbors no malicious software. Scan it first!

    A self-extracting zip file is like other zip files except that its extension is .EXE instead of .ZIP and in addition to the compressed original files, the container includes a "light" version of a zip program which will automatically extract all the compressed files when you execute it --either by double- clicking on it in Windows Explorer, or by "running" it from the Run command on the Start menu.

  • Self-extracting setup file

  • If the file you downloaded has the .EXE extension it could also be a setup file. Setup files not only extract the zipped files they contain, they also make changes to your system files (like the Registry) required to make the downloaded program work properly.

    Setups will usually present you with a dialog box offering the choice to cancel or continue. If you continue, the setup will usually present you with more dialogs enabling you to choose installation options such as the location for the program's folder, etc.

Installation

If your download was a setup file the installation will proceed more or less automatically.

If it was a zip file or a self-extracting zip file, you will have a folder full of files after the extraction process.

Use Windows Explorer to examine the file folder. Look for a text file which will contain information about the program and installing and using it. Usually this file will have a name like readme.txt. Double-click the file to open and read it in Notepad or other editor.

If there is no Readme.txt file, or if after reading it you are still unclear about how to proceed, do this:
  • Click in the Type field at the top of the file list in Explorer to sort the files by type. Then you should see one or more files of the "Application" type - files that will have the .EXE extension, probably including the self-extracting zip file if that's what the download was.

    If you see a file named SETUP.EXE, it's the installation program and you can begin the installation by double-clicking on it.


  • If no setup.exe file is found, look for a file whose extension is .EXE and whose name suggests the name of the downloaded program. Some programs, usually utilities, don't need to be installed by a SETUP.EXE program - they are ready to run upon extraction.

    If this is the case you just want to create a program folder and move all the extracted files there before creating a shortcut for the program by right-dragging the file and dropping it, say, on your desktop.

Cleanup

With installation complete it's time for a cleanup. Simply delete the downloaded .zip file and you're done. No point in keeping the .zip, you can always download it should it be needed in the future and that way you'll be sure you have the most recent program version available.


Bruce Miller, 2002, 2014