Freeware and Shareware have been around along time. I use a LOT of both.
I've had more arguments with tech guys than I can count about these programs.
The reality is that some of these programs should simply be being built into operating systems. Others are almost as good as some very expensive commercial software.
As far as shareware, I've had a long standing policy. While some of the authors are GREAT, I only buy stuff that has free upgrades for life. I suppose it's a double standard as, yes, I do buy Microsoft products (and others) when I'm convinced it will help my productivity. I also use them to stay current with the latest software and applications.
Gizmo Richards puts out one of the best freeware lists. I've experimented with many of them, and at least for me, while I like and read the commentary, I only find a few of them truly useful.
(Note: Some of these still carry the 'Beta' tag - Read everything - Some beta software should not be used in mission critical environments! )
This follows list is for Windows XP and, in most cases, Vista.
Freeware - The short list of Free Software that I use regularly:
FreshDiagnose and /or Belarc Advisor - What's in your computer? You may be surprised.
CCleaner - Use advanced features with caution
Firefox and IE7 and Safari for Windows Beta 3
Goggle stuff: Picasa 2, Google Earth, Gmail, Blogger
Yahoo Stuff: Flickr uploader Version 3 is here.
Microsoft Stuff: Live Writer, Live Mail Client, SysInternals utilities, Virtual PC
Paint.Net - Ugh, look out Photoshop ? - It just keeps getting better!
Fireshot for Firefox - Screenshots from Firefox
ImgBurn - Great for ISO's
Filezilla - FTP Client - Constantly updated.
While obviously, my own tests don't agree always with Gizmo, his commentaries in these categories (and about 40 more) are well worth the read and updated every few months.
I hope you find at least one of these programs useful!