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Shareware is software that is distributed without the tight controls that are often seen for proprietary software. However, a shareware program is sometimes accompanied by a request for payment, and often payment is required per the terms of the license. The term shareware was coined by Bob Wallace to describe his word processor PC-Write in the mid-1980s.

Open source software and shareware are similar in that they can be obtained and used without monetary cost. However, shareware differs from open source software in that requests of voluntary "shareware fees" are made, often within the program itself, and in that source code for shareware programs is generally not available in a form that would allow others to extend the program.

Sometimes, paying the fee and obtaining a password results in access to expanded features, documentation, or support. In some cases, unpaid use of the software is limited in time—in which case the software is vernacularly called crippleware.

Shareware programs are now typically utilities running on Microsoft Windows. Shareware is rarely found on non-Macintosh Unix-like operating systems, which may be due to the corporate use of Unix until the advent of Linux, which championed free software as opposed to shareware.

In using a shareware approach to distributing a program, a developer forgoes a fixed income stream from license fees, but also reduces the cost of distribution. Users of shareware are encouraged to copy & distribute unregistered versions of the software to friends, co-workers and other acquaintances. The hope is that users will find the program useful or entertaining and will register it (by paying a fee) to unlock a full suite of features.

Nowadays, shareware is not found with large complex programs requiring many programmers. In this situation, shareware provides neither the ability to hire programmers using licensing fees as is the case with proprietary software, nor does it allow many different programmers to maintain or extend software, as with open source software.

However, Apogee Software, 3D Realms, and id Software offered several games in the early to 1990s via the shareware model. The first part of a trilogy was released as shareware and the other two parts as commercial games (delivered to the user when the shareware version was "registered" by paying for it). These games were cutting-edge software: Wolfenstein 3D is considered by many to be the first great first person shooter, to be later redefined by Doom (also shareware) and Quake (commercial game).

See also: adware, careware, donateware, freeware, guiltware, nagware, payware, postcardware

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