Free isn’t always free, but sometimes it’s close enough.
Occasionally there’s a hidden agenda, but surprisingly often, there isn’t.
Naturally, I can only speculate, but I can think of several broad reasons that individuals or organizations creating free software might have for their generosity.
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Free software is created for a variety of reasons:
- Promoting an agenda
- Making money in some related way
- Establishing credibility
- Creating a need for follow-on paid components
- Bait and switch tactics
- Outright lies
Believe it or not, there are people who actually enjoy computers.
In fact, there are those who would work with computers even if they weren’t getting paid. These are folks for whom computers are a hobby, a career, or both.1
Programmers who just love what they do are one source of free software. While it may be more than that, one motivation is the ability to produce something people find useful because they can and they want to. They may not 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 produce free software 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.
Some free software is created by individuals or organizations to promote an agenda of some sort.
For example, consider the old “https everywhere” browser add-on, which promotes the use of https connections wherever possible.
This software is freely available to encourage people to use https secure connections, but also to raise awareness of privacy issues and encourage sites to support https as a secure connection mechanism.2
It may seem contradictory, but some people offer software for free expecting it will make money.
The idea is that software spreads far and wide by being given away. Once installed, the software reminds or encourages the user 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 donate to make the effort worthwhile.
Most donationware, 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 useful.
Another approach that is particularly common on mobile platforms is advertising. The program — typically a game — is completely free, but the “cost” is that you watch advertisements that generate income for the creator.
Yet another approach is branding or brand-building. Services like Outlook.com, Gmail, and others are free, but act as a hook into their respective software ecosystems.
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 free utility, the company’s other efforts benefit. Individuals purchasing other software are more likely to look to that company if they’ve had good experience with the free product.
“Free for non-commercial use” is another example. Many vendors make software available for individuals to use at no charge, hoping that the reputation they garner will 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 the razor that cemented 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.
For example, I use a shopping-cart package that is 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 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 hypes a free solution.
- That free solution, which does exist and is indeed free, is also difficult to find.
- Instead, the companies steer you to a free trial, which is not the same. After the trial period is over, payment is required.
It’s quite legitimate to use a free product to advertise the existence of a more fully-featured commercial product. It’s something else to hype 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 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.
Some “free downloads” are a variation on this theme. The download is indeed free, but you still need to pay if you actually want to use what you downloaded.
Given that there are many different reasons software may be offered as free, it’s worth evaluating the software to understand if it really is, or what the characteristics of “free” are.
There’s a lot of good, truly free software out there. But it’s worth understanding the limits of that freedom.
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