Friday, February 26, 2010

How much does free really cost?

The web is changing perceptions about what should be free. Companies are giving away software for seemingly nothing. Some of it actually looks like good, quality software. But…is it really free? What does “free” actually cost? Answer: A lot more than you might think. Let me explain.

While “free” products may not cost money upfront, you typically end up paying in one of these three forms:

Time: Free software usually requires more work than their non-free counterparts. When you receive something for nothing, you’re expected to set it up, fix problems, etc… Of course you accept that because, after all, it was free. But how much extra work? How much does your time cost? From a business perspective, at what point does it become cheaper to just pay money in order to save time? You need to figure out how much time you’ll need and what your (or your employees’) time is worth before determining the true cost of “free” software.

Privacy: Some “free” items are free only in exchange for personal information. Google is the best example. Google makes some great software that many people rely on every day in the business world. Most everything is free (or cheap), and all they ask in return is your personal information. Most people gladly accept this exchange because they are getting good, if not great, software for “free”. How much is your privacy worth to you? It’s worth plenty to Google. The more they know, the better they can sell targeted advertising. Is your privacy worth free software? It’s up to you. But be careful. I believe we are just beginning to understand the dangers of sacrificing privacy. This site drives home a pretty clear message about the dangers of sharing too much information.

Hidden costs: Free software typically lacks the functionality found in other software. Many times, a company will give you free software only to lure you in. Once you have dedicated your time and energy into the software, you learn that in order to gain essential functionality, you have to pay. Sometimes, you’ll have to pay in order to accomplish small tasks that you assumed would be included. Other times, the software may be free, but everything else associated with it costs money. They suck you in with free, and force you to pay or walk away from your hard work.

My point: Sometimes “free” software is more expensive than paying for software. Before settling on free software, make sure you know the true costs. How much time will you need? How much privacy am I sacrificing? How much will it cost to do everything I need to do?

Remember, “free” is almost never free.


david 5:05 PM  

While I don't disagree with your comments, in general, but I think that a lot of times 'not free' costs a lot more than 'free' ever will (even in the same categories).

A few points ...

1. Ever tried to get consumer tech support from Micro$oft, Quicken, Symantec, etc? Those are all 'not free' products but you don't get a whole lot of support for the money you pay.

2. Some 'not free' product don't provide you with a lot more privacy ... case in point: Tivo. While I love my Tivo, I'm none to happy with the amount of advertising I get on it even after paying for the hardware and lifetime service contract I paid for.

Regarding your point about amount of time required to use 'free' software ... while it's true that you have to spend more time to get a handle on a lot of free software, that time is usually well spent ... as once you have a good understanding of how it works, you're in a better position to make changes in the future. Obviously this comment is mostly relevant to IT professionals and not consumer's.

Finally, there are a number of 'free' products available that are truly free, easy to use, and have no significant privacy issues ... Products such as Firefox, Thunderbird, Gimp, Open Office, etc.


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joestangarone 3:55 PM  


Thank you for your detailed response! I can't argue with your points, there are definitely exceptions to the "free isn't really free" rule. Many times, you are better off with the free software.

The point I was getting at was this: Whenever you are offered software for "free", don't base your decision on the word "free". There are other factors besides price that must be taken into consideration...which is probably more applicable to the business world than it is to the consumer world. Basically, I'm not saying it's always better to pay for software so much as I'm saying it's not always better to choose the free software.

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