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The True Cost of Free Software

The idea for today’s post came from a recent conversation I had with a former colleague of mine over coffee. We were discussing the idea of free software, how we see so much of it these days, and whether it really is free.

Having spent the last 23 years of my career in Information Technology, working for various companies large and small, in roles ranging from software development to support, consulting and sales, I can safely say that no software has ever been built free of cost. Sure, we have hobbyists or open source advocates who spend their own free time contributing software to the open source community, but the fact remains… There is always a cost associated with software. 

Free Software… how does that work?

So, when a business tells us that they are offering ‘free software’, what is that about? 

If we go with the definition of ‘free’ as in ‘freedom’, then we’re talking about software that is freely available for users to run, copy, distribute, study, change and improve upon. The motivation behind such free software is innovation and this has been proven hugely effective when we look at the ultra-successful open-source initiatives and projects out there like Linux, Apache, Git… just to name a few.

However, there is also the other definition of ‘free’, as in ‘free beer’. In that case ‘free software’ means it’s provided to use free of charge. In this instance, users don’t have to pay a license fee, but they can neither change nor freely re-distribute it. The motivation for providing such free software is less clear.

Ultimately, if this ‘free’ software is offered by a business whose purpose is likely to make profit and deliver shareholder value, then one has to ask what their true motivation might be.

Why Free?

The answer to this question is varied. It depends on which company and which product is being offered for free. I will not venture to name specific companies or products in this post, but in general, there are three types of free software that we typically see…

  1. Free with Limited Functionality
  2. Free with Limited Time
  3. Free with No Limitations

What is the True Cost?

Now that we’ve explored the 3 types of ‘free’ software that we typically see in the market, let’s try to see what the true costs are for reviewing, choosing and implementing them.

Summary

According to the old saying, ‘there’s no such thing as a free lunch’. On the whole that’s as true for software today as for anything else, particularly when we’re thinking about enterprise-level adoption. 

‘Freemium’ models that allow some form of free access to software have certainly proved a boon for individual users. We’re able to access a huge range of functionality – from productivity tools to creative applications – that in general does just about enough, and sometimes much more. But when that software becomes essential to the successful operation of your business, rather than an optional way to save some cash in exchange for mild inconvenience, we need to take a closer look.

The fact is, giving away software for free without any limitations simply makes no commercial sense for most businesses. That means there’s always a cost involved somewhere – whether it’s sensitive behavioral information inadvertently given away through SaaS products, an apparently inconsequential lack of support that becomes prohibitive at scale, or the big chunk of implementation services that are needed before you get up and running.

When adopting new software tools it’s incumbent upon us as IT professionals to consider the bigger picture and identify the full lifecycle cost, rather than just taking the easy route that means we don’t have to worry about sign-off or budget. When considering software that appears to be free, we should also find out if there are established solutions that have a proven track record and could be implemented in a much simpler, faster and easier way. In some cases it might actually prove to be more prudent and cost effective to go with a paid-for solution!

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