Faced with competition from Ethereal - now reborn as Wireshark - WildPackets has decided that if you can't beat them, then join them, and released a free version of its OmniPeek network analyser.

Dubbed OmniPeek Personal, it is free for personal and educational use, but is functionally limited compared to the full commercial release.

"What's missing is VoIP analysis, but you can't get call quality from Wireshark either," said Chris Bell, WildPackets' European director. "It's also restricted to analysing the first 25 flows only."

WildPackets has in the past cited competition from Ethereal as undermining the sales of its standalone protocol analysis software. Bell said that where OmniPeek Personal scores is that it still has OmniPeek's expert analysis and packet visualiser capabilities - and that, he argued, is where commercial software has an edge over open source.

"People want things they can get value out of straightaway, then they can right-click for hints or shortcuts. It's the first page of the novel that persuades you to keep reading," he said.

However, John Bruno of Wireshark supporter CACE Technologies denied that there is any comparison between open source and commercial software. "Wireshark doesn't compete as a product - it's a community developing a tool that's broadly useful," he said.

But as the use of networks and the need for network analysis both grow, will all network managers be interested in joining that community? Clearly, Chris Bell thinks not.

"There are some very large organisations that have the skills to use Wireshark and are quite happy to do that, but we think there is still a market for a commercial product, among people who lack the scripting expertise," he said.

"Wireshark provides lots of information but getting it out can be tricky. Especially in wireless, there's a huge amount that can go wrong that you can't pick up by analysing packets, only by doing expert analysis and heuristics."

Bell added that an advantage over the demo and evaluation versions offered by WildPackets and competitors such as Network General and Network Instruments is that you don't need to register on a website in order to download OmniPeek Personal. That means they won't subsequently get phone calls from a salesperson, he said.

In fact, you don't even have to visit WildPackets to get OmniPeek Personal, as it is also available on download.com and other sites.