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Why do People Create Free Software?

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What prompts an individual or organization to create and offer software for free? Is there some hidden agenda that I am missing that drives these people to put all that work into development of these applications and then simply give them away?

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.

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Hobby

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.

100% FreeAltruism

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.

Agenda

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.

Money

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.

Credibility

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.

Bait

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.

Lies

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.

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Footnotes & references

1: I’ve often referred to my own career in this light: computers and technology are both my career and my hobby.

11 comments on “Why do People Create Free Software?”

  1. Couple of things I think you left out…

    Money: Another monetary option is ad-supported. A lot of those free games on the Android or iPhone app stores pop up video ads between replays or have a banner at the top or bottom. Then you can buy the version without ads for a nominal fee.

    Building a Market: Imagine I develop an amazing video encoding system that reduces bandwidth use by 80%. I then create a video player and give it to people for free. Why? Because I’ll make my money on licensing the compressor to Netflix, YouTube, Comcast, etc. It’s like razors and razor blades, only instead of selling blades to the end user of my razors, I’m selling the machinery to make the blades to third parties.

    • A prime example of that is Adobe Acrobat. As early as the mid 90s Adobe was offering the Free Acrobat (.pdf) Reader. Then they sold the Acrobat (.pdf writer and editor) program to those who wanted to produce .pdf files. It was a very good business model and helped make .pdf format the Gold Standard for compatible documents and DTP.

      • Hi Mark,
        Actually, Adobe Reader is a ‘must’ for selling the Acrobat editor because that enable the Users (not having acrobat) of pdf files to read the files sent by the creators.

        • I don’t understand this comment. There are many ways to create PDFs that don’t require Acrobat, and many readers as well. There’s no “must” relationship between Reader and Acrobat that I’m aware of.

  2. I kept thinking of this site while reading the article, even through you don’t actually give away software, you give away excellent advice. I always wondered if the ads pay the entire bill for the Ask Leo servers and electricity to run it.

  3. That brings to mind the grey-area tactic used by many sites (Windows Secrets is guilty of this) in their ads. Many times I see an ad with a link stating “free download” leading one to believe that the software is free. I haven’t seen a case yet where “free download” was anything other than a come-on. Of course the download is free. Just try to install and run it for free.

  4. For those of you who don’t know, there is a site called Ninite. It has many freeware programs listed. You can download via Ninite. For example, if you use a program called X, check the box next to X, press the big Green Ninite Installer button and this will download a file that will be called Ninite X Installer.exe. It will take up 299 KB. If there is another freeware program on their list that you like and its’ name is Y, uncheck the box next to X, check the box next to Y, and click on the big green button. You will now have downloaded a program called Ninite Y Installer.exe. I keep my Ninite installer program in a separate folder. Then install X and Y by double-clicking Ninite X Installer.exe. and Ninite Y Installer.exe. Ninite strips all malware in the download and in the installation. If you have reason to believe on of your freeware files has been updated simply rerun Ninite for that program. If there is an update it will install it. If there isn’t it will let you know via a message. Of necessity, since it is performing so many functions, Ninite runs a bit slower than normal download and installation combination but that’s a small price to pay for safety.

  5. Microsoft continues to surprise me. When I started in computers (1992), I don’t think Microsoft gave away anything for free. A couple years ago I found out that Microsoft gave away (and still does give away) the last version of Microsoft Money. They have discontinued the product, so they decided to post the final version on their website to give away for free. If you need free money management software – that’s where you can get some.

    More recently, I found out that just by having a Microsoft account, I automatically have a OneDrive account. When I logged in, I was surprised to find out that I can use an online version of Microsoft Office for free. Sure maybe every last feature that’s in the pay version might not be there, but it seems to do whatever I need.

    I think Microsoft fits into the building brand loyalty category.

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