Updated: March 20, 2017
We're back with a new interview, and this time, we step away from the purely Linux world of things. So far, we've talked to the MX Linux team, two KDE developers, Jesse Smith of DistroWatch, and Jeff Hoogland of Bodhi. As I said, Linux primarily. And now, for something completely different.Our voluntary victim for today is the man who started Gizmo's Freeware, also known as techsupportalert.com, one of (if not) the most influential portals on free software. Names and titles aside, we shall refer to him as Gizmo. Without further ado, shall we commence?
Hi Gizmo, please introduce yourself.
G: You might find this odd coming from a computer geek like me but my formal training is not in computers but in Clinical Psychology, though I have never practiced in that profession. That's because at university I also majored in maths and back in the 1960s, anyone who could spell mathematics was quickly recruited by the computing industry. So, as soon as I graduated I went straight into scientific programming and I've been working in the computer industry ever since.
DM: This is an interesting observation - spell mathematics - as we've seen the same trend repeated in the late 90s, when people with Excel skills were referred to as wizards and magicians of the blooming IT world.
G: I enjoyed the challenge of scientific programming but with time I moved into technical management and in my late 30s ended up as the de facto MIS manager for a government department. It was there I saw one of the first microcomputers - a Z80 S100 bus machine running CP/M. After using it I remember thinking "This is the future."
The microcomputer impressed me so much I bought one for myself, well more accurately I built one for myself. When the first spreadsheet program VisiCalc was launched, I could see an opportunity so I left the safety of a well-paid government job and started my own business training corporate staff in the use of PCs. This really took off as the timing was perfect and in a short period the company had six training centres and was the biggest player in the local PC training market. I ran this for some years before selling to a publicly listed training company.
What is behind the domain name: techsupportalert.com?
G: After I sold my training business, I acquired from a printed word publisher a small website called techsupportalert.com which as the name suggests, dealt mainly with supporting PCs. The site also had an email newsletter called Support Alert with a mailing list of a few thousand subscribers.
My aim in taking over the site was to broaden the site's market to a wider group of tech savvy users not just tech support personal. I did this by doing a lot more reviews of free Windows utilities as well as covering usage tips and PC security issues.
The software reviews proved very popular so I decided to build a list a recommended utilities called "The 46 Best-ever Freeware Utilities" which I maintained regularly and promoted in the Support Alert Newsletter that I was then writing and distributing monthly. The "46 Best" list eventually became super popular and the newsletter itself ended with over 150,000 subscribers.
By this stage the 46 utilities had grown to over 100 and was getting difficult to maintain for a one-man operation particularly when I was also writing and administering the newsletter. So, when I was approached by Windows Secrets newsletter to sell them Support Alert newsletter I agreed in a flash.
I didn't sell the techsupportalert.com website as I had plans to change the way it worked. I knew I could no longer maintain all the reviews on the site just by myself so I had to find a way forward. The simplest option was to hire staff and run the site along commercial lines but this had little appeal to me as I'd run my own company before and knew how committing that activity can be.
So instead I decided to turn the site into a non-commercial community website with reviews written and maintained by that community. This was pretty much in line with the spirit of the Internet at that time.
I called on my newsletter subscribers to join with me in the revamped website as volunteer reviewers and the response was overwhelming with over 100 joining within a week. I asked several of these with appropriate experience to become part of a management committee to help run the site and guide its development. This is still how the site runs today. No salaried staff, no offices, a true community effort.
Can you tell us more about Gizmo's Freeware?
G: The new website needed a new name so I asked the management committee for suggestions and we collectively came up with "Gizmo's Freeware."
At that stage the plan was to change the URL from techsupportalert.com to gizmos-freeware.com but that ran into a problem. If we changed the domain name we would lose almost all our excellent Google ranking and most of our search engine derived traffic.
So we stuck with the old URL techsupportalert.com which is still in use today. We do have gizmos-freeware.com and variants registered and one day we may change to that url.
Who finds, reviews and catalogs all this free software?
G: Reviews of individual product classes are maintained by specific volunteer editors who have responsibility for that product class. So the category "Best Free Anti-virus" has an editor whose responsibility is to maintain and update the existing reviews of products in that category as well as add new products they have become aware of or have been suggested by our users.
What is your mission?
G: To provide users with honest, reliable guidance in selecting the best free software products for their needs.
In my opinion, Gizmo's Freeware is the most reputable source of software recommendations on the Web - apologies wider audience, I am biased - and has remained so despite all the changes and turbulence in the softwarescape in the past decade. How do you manage to weather the wildly swinging moods of the Internet?
G: Thanks for the kind words, they are appreciated.
The key to understanding Gizmo's Freeware is that it is a community website not a commercial website. Our priority is to provide a free service to users rather than to make a profit or maximise income. The importance of this cannot be overstated.
We are regularly approached by software vendors who want to pay us to give their products a favourable review or include their products in our recommendations. Still others want to provide us with reviews of their products they have written themselves or offer us freebies of various kinds.
The list of commercial inducements is quite long and we have resisted them all. We have never accepted payment for a product to be reviewed or to be given higher ratings. We have never published reviews written by vendors and our editors are prohibited from receiving freebies or other disguised bribes. It is a credit to our volunteer editors that they have subscribed fully to this ethic despite the temptations.
Is there a screening or vetting process behind software reviews?
G: Reviews are the responsibility of our volunteer editors. Given that responsibility we are quite strict in who we accept as editors and maintain a close watch on the contribution of those who have recently joined. Because of this strict vetting procedures, we have had few issues with review quality and most those we have had, relate to the standard of the written English rather than the review content.
Now, the most important question, do you become a Gremlin after midnight?
Nah, but after midnight the gremlins sometimes get me.
DM: Readers, I would be careful if I were you.
Do you actively contribute to the site yourself?
G: When I shifted the site to a community model I deliberately reduced my written contribution as I wanted to make the site less associated with me. I'm still heavily involved in the site but mainly do the back-room stuff like server management.
Is there a particular category you feel is best represented at Gizmo's Freeware?
G: I think our coverage of free security software is outstanding with volunteer editor Ako's huge list of security products just one of many articles which are IMHO, the best of their kind on the net.
Conversely, is there any type of programs that lack reviews and testing?
G: With mobile now so important I'd like to extend our coverage of the best mobile apps. It's reasonably good now but needs to be even better.
How would you like the site to evolve in the coming years?
G: The future is with mobile so we need to give this increased focus. Associated with this is better use social media to broaden our audience.
Do you think the mobile world has affected your popularity or relevance?
G: Absolutely as it has just about every site on the Internet. Years ago, we shifted from being a Windows focused site but still retained a desktop orientation. The decline in interest in desktop computers and in particular, the market failure of Windows 8, had an adverse impact on our traffic at that time. Since then we have pushed towards more mobile coverage but we have a long way to go.
If you had an unlimited budget, how would you grow techsupportalert?
G: Unlimited budget you say, well I guess a man can dream. If money was not an issue I'd like to supplement our volunteer editors with a small, salaried team of professional reviewers specifically focused on mobile software reviews. Some specialist Social Media staff would be great too.
Since this question went unanswered in the last interview, in a fight between Casey Ryback and John Matrix, who would win?
G: I refuse to answer that question without including Rambo.
DM: I humbly bow to thy answer, sir.
What advice do you have for a newbie freshly starting their journey in free software?
G: Dedicate yourself to the Open Source sector as that is path with the truest heart.
What do you think of the old paid-vs-free and no-such-thing-as-free-software arguments?
G: Mobile has shifted the market perception; free is the new normal and is now expected particularly by younger users. Associated with this is the rise of the freemium model and I must admit I'm not enthusiastic about this development.
Any security related tips?
G: If somebody wants to hack you they can and will so don't obsess on trying to have absolute security, it doesn't exist. Just do the standard "due diligence" things to ensure you are not low hanging fruit. Apart from that, just keep a low profile and make yourself a small target.
Favorite Bond movie?
G: In that genre, I'd prefer Dr. Strangelove to any Bond movie.
DM: Wisely answered.
G: A wish: in this new world of alternative facts what about a return to truth, integrity and honesty in politics, business and the Internet.
As Gizmo tells us, finding high-quality content on the Web is no longer trivial. Everything comes masked with profit, and if not outright monetary considerations, there's a definite focus on glamor. Separating intent from content becomes tricky, especially if you're on a hunt after good, honest freeware.
The existence of techsupportalert.com makes this mission less frustrating, and you will truly be amazed by the accumulated stockpile of good, thorough material, research and no-agenda recommendations. The Web as it was meant to be. Again, do take my words with some reservation, as I'm involved and biased, but then, there are very few places on the wider Internet I even consider worthy of reading, so there's that.
Some uncertainty remains, especially round the Trio, and I'm not talking about Spaghetti Westerns, it's about Rambo and friends. May the Force be with you. Oh, I love Star Trek! Seriously, Gizmo's Freeware should be your one-stop shop to zero-cost software. Start there, then branch out if you need to, but you probably won't. Happy to have had this opportunity, and I'd like to thank Gizmo for not turning into a wild monster during the interview, and wish TSA many more years of operations. Dedoimedo out.