familiar piece of conventional wisdom is “You get what you pay for.” This common truth applies to everything in life, but in this case, we’re talking about free software. Or more appropriately, Free Software*.
What is Free Software?
Put simply, it’s software where there is no monetary cost to use the software in some capacity for some period of time. But that’s the kicker: SOME capacity for SOME period of time. In most cases, you’re getting a limited set of tools in the platform of choice or getting full access for a period of time (Trial Use). There is also the case of “Fully Free” and “Open Source”. Let’s go through each of the scenarios you will come across when offered free software*.
Trial Use – Limited time only!
This is the most common form of “free” software you’ll encounter in your travels. There’s a great platform that boasts over a million users (note they say users and not customers). It seems to have everything you could ever want and promise the world, all for nothing. Seems too good to be true? It is. The trick here is they give you just enough functionality and usage to start using it and explore the platform. By the time you outgrow the needs of the system you’re now faced with a hard choice: “Do I pay the $200 a month they’re going to charge me so I can keep using the platform or do I go through the headache of moving all my work to another, more cost-appropriate system?” This is an effective marketing technique and, to be truthful, this isn’t a bad way to go as a business owner to generate customers. After all, if the platform works for you and doesn’t cost you anything until your business and needs grow and we’ll assume your revenue as well this could be a good option for you. But if the platform, even with the premium fee, still doesn’t serve your uses you’re stuck in a cycle where you chose a piece of technology based on your needs at the time without considering the headaches it will cause for you down the road.
Fully Free – The Student Project Special
For very young and talented developers, this is a very common way to get your name out to the world. You create a simple tool, library, or piece of tech and the value is the recognition, not any potential money you could make from it. So, you release it free to the world under the Creative Commons license or GPL (General Public License). These projects are typically built by a very small team of developers and are probably a clever solution to a particular problem.
The problem arises in the fact that since it’s something not paid for, nor is it part of a company’s portfolio, getting support for such a project is next to impossible. Without an active support network as other technologies advance, these free software applications tend to become obsolete or unusable. So, this probably isn’t’ for you if you are looking for a long-term technology solution.
Open Source – Let the community fix the problems
Open Source is a term where the code base is managed by a community of volunteers. As problems arise and technology advances, the community undertakes the needed duty of updating the code base and ensuring it works well for all. Open Source projects tend to fall into the realm of “For Developers, By Developers” which is to say working with an open-source project often requires a knowledgeable technology expert to install, configure, and maintain it. While there are some examples of very robust communities around an application or platform (like the Linux operating system and the WordPress web platform) most open source projects are the hard work of a small handful of dedicated professionals keeping a project alive. If you or a member of your team is tech savvy, then some Open Source solutions might work for you; but as with all things consider the cost of your developer’s time vs. what you’re gaining. It makes no sense to spend a month working on something to save a few hundred dollars.
For the vast majority of uses, “free” software ends up being anything but. You’ll spend time, money, time, aggravation, time, man hours, and more time trying to fit a square peg into a round hole. Or you’ll give up and buy a stable, supported solution anyway. The rule of vetting any application or solution remains the same for free software as well as paid.
What is your total cost of ownership? If, when including man hours, the cost is more than buying something simple off the shelf then the choice is a no brainer.
“Where will my company be in 6 months and will this solution still serve my needs then?”
In sum, as stated before, “You get what you pay for.” So, make sure you are “paying” for what you need.