Freeware — The idealism behind the Internet

Oscar Wilde once famously said that nowadays people know the price of everything and the value of nothing. That is still true, but not for the driving force behind the greatest phenomenon of our age.

Programmer and idealist Philippe Bernard.

It has often been said that every one of us has a novel inside of us. The big problem was always that unless you were famous, infamous (like Jeffrey Archer), or extremely lucky, it would never get published. All that has changed over the past few years, and there are kids growing up today – the novelists of the future – who will never know that problem. True, you may never make a cent from your novel, text book or musical masterpiece, but if you are reading this article, you can publish it.

While everyone can write a computer program (even me!) most people can’t write programs of sufficient sophistication to market commercially or for regular use. That being said, there are enormous numbers of programmers out there – professional and otherwise – and the market has long been swamped.

In the early days, before the Internet took off, some enterprising programmers developed the shareware concept – try before your buy – though it remains to be seen how many people actually registered with these authors. Others didn’t bother to market their programs, they simply wrote them and gave them away – freeware. Why would they or anyone do this?

Why does a 70+ Paul McCartney continue writing songs? It’s the creative instinct that many of us have – genius in his case. It’s also idealism of the purest kind.

Back in those early days, hardware was expensive, so was software. Nowadays you can pick up a reasonably new computer for a song or occasionally for free from the likes of Freecycle or Freegle. And by and large, you don’t have to pay for software at all. There is Mozilla for example. And there is Philippe Bernard.

Last year I inherited a unique collection of documents, which I decided at length to put on the Web. On December 16, 2012, The David Webb Virtual Archive was launched. *

Before I could set about this, I needed a scanner, and obtained one for nothing from a lady in Bellingham through the aforementioned Freecycle Network. The only problem was that this particular scanner produces only JPGs, so I looked around for a conversion program, and soon happened upon a free on-line service run by Monsieur Bernard. Here he is in his own words. As you will quickly realise, if he ever gives up programming, he could make a good living as a stand-up comedian.

Alexander Baron: Bonjour. That is all the French I know!

Philippe Bernard: :)

AB: I am using your program to build an archive. I would like to ask you a few questions, please feel free to answer as many or as few as you care (or none if you wish) in as much detail as you care.

Philippe Bernard: Wait wait wait... do you plan to write an article about me? Ok, I start with this assumption, and hope you’re not filling a report for the CIA :)

AB: Can you tell our readers something about yourself, how old you are, where you are based, etc?

PB: I’m 34 and I live in Paris with my wife and kid. I’m a computer engineer.

AB: How long have you been using the Internet?

PB: 15 years. Damn, that’s a long time! I’ve just realized while typing.

AB: How long have you been programming?

PB: Almost 20 years. I started on my TI-82 calculator.

AB: How many programs have you written?

PB: Hard to tell... All developers write countless programs. If I count only the valuable stuff, either big (full fledged e-commerce website) to tiny (yet usable, document and distributed), I would say 15-20 programs or websites.

AB: Your converter is totally free, indeed to run the service it costs you money with the domain name. Why do you do this?

PB: It’s free but the revenue from ads pays for the expenses. It won’t make me rich but at least the server costs me nothing.

I think I will give the same answer all developers involved in open source software could give. We all need to earn money, and that’s why jobs were made...But earning money is not all, and everyone wants to help, to contribute at some point. It can be being helpful with neighbors, donations to charities...Software is yet another area to express this desire of being helpful. And so convenient: programing is free, you can do that at home, whenever you want. Plus it’s really fun.

Then, when it starts working, the initial act of giving provides feedback. Almost every day, I receive “thank you” messages and say to myself “Damn, people are using it!”. Obviously, this is very rewarding.

As a writer, I’m pretty sure you must feel something like this.

AB: (That’s all I ever feel, that and a few peanuts at the end of the month) What do you see is the future of the Internet and of programming?

PB: Except the brand new website I expect to launch in a few weeks you mean? :)

First with the classics: more phone, more tablet and less PC in our lives. And more Internet, obviously. Since its infancy, computer science has always grown and evolved, unlike most sectors which are mature (I mean, a house built today is not that different from the house built a century ago). On the long term (20-30 years), I’m wondering if computer science will continue to evolve after the devices reach their final form (something to plug directly in the brain, maybe?).

AB: Anything else you’d like to add?

PB: Sure. You probably think of me that I’m fond of JPG-to-PDF conversion, that my world is only turning JPG to PDF. You couldn’t be more wrong. It appears that my other passion is to convert PDF to JPG. I’m also the author of, a PDF to JPG online converter. This one is free, too. It even has an additional feature: for every 5,000 converted documents, plants a tree in the Brazilian forest. 455 trees since I launched the program! It’s all explained here:

AB: Philippe Bernard, thank you very much.

PB: You’re welcome! I’m eager to know what you’re going to do with all this. Don’t hesitate to ask if you have additional questions.

And if the CIA is to visit me, please let me know in advance, there’s stuff I’d like to remove from my hard drive first.


Hmm, perhaps I was wrong about him doing stand-up comedy.

It has to be said that not all these Internet idealists are as talkative as Philippe Bernard; the guy behind the free audio converter declined to tell me anything about himself or his product; this bears a copyright notice from 2009 but is likewise free for all and sundry to use, and as I’ve said many times before, copyright is dead, at least as far as the Internet is concerned. Others, like the author of the freeware program Fractint, want admiration, though not necessarily personal recognition.

Of course, one, two or even half a dozen free to use programs will not change the world, but if we could find some way of transferring that idealism and output from the virtual world to the real world, maybe we’d be able to solve most of our problems, like producing clean, renewable energy, reducing the depletion of natural resources, and so on. Well, a man can dream, can’t he? In the meantime, look out for Philippe Bernard’s new program – whatever it is.

[The above interview was first published January 24, 2013, not January 23 as shown here. I have made some very minor alterations to the text. The David Webb Virtual Archive was renamed The David Webb Virtual Archive & Fan Site on August 10, 2013.]

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