Sometimes, I’m sure there is indeed a hidden agenda. But often there really isn’t. Heck, there are probably as many different reasons as there are individuals creating free software.
Naturally, I can only speculate, but I can think of several broad categories that individuals or organizations creating free software might fall under.
Become a Patron of Ask Leo! and go ad-free!
Believe it or not, there are people who actually enjoy computers. 🙂 In fact, there are those that would be working with computers even if they weren’t getting paid. These are folks for whom computers are either a hobby, a career, or both. 1
Programmers that just love what they do are certainly one source of free software. While it’s often more complex than that, one of the motivations is simply the ability to produce something that people find useful (or not) because they can and they want to. They often don’t want to be burdened with the additional responsibility or commitment that getting paid for their work might imply.
They just want to have fun.
There are also those who, I’m certain, are producing free software as a way to “give back” to their communities, or to the world. They see what they do as a way to make the world a better place. Perhaps they get satisfaction from offering software to folks who aren’t able to afford equivalent commercial software.
Some folks donate money; others donate time; those with skills often give back by utilizing those skills in various ways.
There are many ways programmers can offer their skills, but with a little entrepreneurial spirit, it’s not uncommon for free software to result – software that somehow benefits its users.
Some free software is created specifically by individuals or organizations to promote an agenda of some sort.
An example might be the “https everywhere” browser add-on, which promotes the use of https connections wherever possible.
This software is freely available, both to encourage people to use https secure connections wherever possible, but also to raise awareness of privacy issues and encourage sites to support https as a secure connection mechanism.
It may seem contradictory, but some free software is created with the expectation that it will make money.
The idea is that software spreads far and wide by being given away. Once the software is installed or used, the user is reminded or encouraged to make a donation to the software creator. The reminders can range from the polite to the obnoxious, but the bottom line is that enough people may in fact donate to make it a worthwhile effort.
Most “donation ware”, as it’s sometimes called, rarely recovers the cost of creation, but it’s one way to offset that expense and reward the creator, particularly for software that is especially good and useful.
Some free software exists simply to give the creator credibility for other, commercial efforts.
Organizations use this technique more often than individuals. By producing a good, useful, free utility, the companies’ other efforts benefit. As a result of their good experience with the free product, individuals purchasing other software are more likely to look to that company.
“Free for non-commercial use” is also a good example. Many utilities are made available for individuals to use at no charge, in the hopes that the reputation they garner will in turn justify a purchase from the corporate environment.
Razors and blades
There’s an old saying: “Give them razors, sell them blades”. Razors, while more expensive, are typically a one-time cost. Blades, on the other hand, need to be replaced periodically for as long as you own that razor. It doesn’t take many blade refills to recoup the expense of that razor, while cementing the relationship with a customer for a much longer term.
The same is true for software. I can think of two common scenarios:
- give the software away for free, and sell support
- give the base software away for free and sell add-ons for additional functionality
In fact, as I write this I’m in the middle of a transition that involves exactly that. I use a base shopping cart software that is completely and totally free, and quite useful just as it is. Some of the additional functionality I want, however, is provided by paid add-ons. So far, my “free” software has cost me a couple hundred dollars. I’m not complaining at all – the base software let me see what I was getting into, and actually made me feel better about paying for the additions.
And then there’s the dark side: free software used as bait.
Unfortunately, we often see this in the world of malware, but it’s true in other venues as well. It works like this:
- A company heavily promotes a free solution.
- That free solution, which does exist and is completely free, is also incredibly difficult to actually find.
- Instead, the companies will steer you to a “Free Trial”, which is not the same. After the trial period is over, payment is required.
It’s one thing, and quite legitimate in my opinion, to use a free product to advertise the existence of a more fully-featured commercial product. It’s something else entirely to heavily promote a free product as a lure to trick your prospects into downloading the “free trial”, which is ultimately not free.
The worst case of “bait and switch”, in my opinion, is the “Free Scan” scam. You think the software is free, but it’s not, and it never was.
This scenario is all too common:
- You see an online ad (usually with a lot of exclamation marks) for a “Free Scan” to help you fix some kind of problem.
- The scan, which is indeed, completely free, reports errors.
- Sometimes those errors are legitimate; sometimes they’re legitimate but blown completely out of proportion to scare you; and sometimes they’re out-and-out lies.
- If you want to fix the errors, it costs money.
It was never free to begin with.
If you found this article helpful, I'm sure you'll also love Confident Computing! My weekly email newsletter is full of articles that help you solve problems, stay safe, and give you more confidence with technology. Subscribe now and I'll see you there soon,