It has long been said that…
“There’s no such thing as a free lunch”
…yet all across the internet, there are offers of free software and applications including:
- Website software
- CRM (Customer relationship management ) systems
- Email marketing tools
- Cloud accounting
- Social media platforms
These can all be really valuable tools to assist in running your business. Many are sophisticated applications that have taken thousands of programming hours to build. How come they are being offered for free? What’s the catch?
The short answer is there may be no catch. However, the important thing is to remember that there really is no such thing as a free lunch. People and companies offering ‘Free’ software all get something out of it.
What does Free mean?
To understand what it is they get, we need to look at the different types of Free.
Try before you buy
You can use this software for a limited time before you have to make the decision to buy a licence to keep using it. This can be great to check if it meets your needs before you have to commit but there are a couple of things to bear in mind. First, the Free Trial period may be quite short so, unless you are using the software regularly, you won’t really have time to properly assess it. Second, it can take a while to set up and get used to some systems so you might find the free trial is over before you are ready to make a decision.
The Free version
This time, the free version is not time-limited but it is functionality limited. The software app comes in multiple versions with only the paid options having more sophisticated functionality. In my experience, the functionality in eth free version is always too restrictive and there is a key feature that I need which I have to pay to get!
Sometimes Try before you buy software might have full functionality for a limited period then drop back to more limited functionality. If the limited functionality works for you then this type of software can be a great option.
Bear in mind that free software normally includes little or no technical support.
The Open Source movement is an altruistic band of programmers who believe software should be free for all. they will write applications then release them for anyone to download, use and adapt. There many, highly sophisticated software applications available as open-source (Linux and WordPress to name 2). The main catch with open-source software is that the support tends to be technically based (tech support for techies!). If you can work with this, open-source software has some great opportunities. By its very nature, open-source software evolves and can even simply stop being developed. To address this, some key open source code has been commercialised where a company will take free code and develop it into their own commercial software which they sell and support.
They want something from you!
OK, you might not be paying money to use an application but you are paying in another way – with your data! It looks free but it isn’t. Search engines and social media are the biggest players here. If you want to know more, take a look at The Great Hack – a Netflix documentary investigating the story around Cambridge Analytica. It’s fascinating but a little disturbing.
The internet thrives on monopoly
The fundamental nature of the internet is as a data communication platform. It thrives on everyone being able to talk to everyone else. Inevitably if you are developing software applications, the chances are you want as many people as possible to actively use it. In fact, there is normally a minimum critical mass of users that you must reach if you are to be successful.
To achieve this critical mass it can make commercial sense so long as you are confident your app really delivers value. To keep your software free encourages people to use it. Once you have built your user base (and got people committed!) you can then start the process of monetising. I have also seen situations where lots of different companies launch different apps into a particular market only to find a single company buying them all up to create a monopoly. In these circumstances, the service to customers can often decline, and/or prices increase.
Using Free Apps in your business
In general, free apps can be a great asset to your business but my best advice is that you should assume that if you are using an app as a key tool in your business, that sooner or later you will be paying for it. And let’s face it, this is no bad thing. Businesses are commercial operations. If you are getting value from another business’s software then it is only reasonable that you pay them for this value. Pay them and you will have a commercial relationship that you both benefit from. You should also see regular updates and proper technical support – both help to keep your own systems running efficiently.
I often come across small businesses where the owner will adapt the way they work to keep within the limitations of ‘free‘ software. In my experience, this is normally a false economy. Invest in a proper, supported software solution. It is much more efficient. You can focus on running your business rather than spending time adapting to stay free. Most software fees are really quite modest. If you feel it is too expensive, are you really getting good value from that app?
In summary, free software can be a great benefit to a business – particularly in the early days. However, it is important that you understand the possible implications of ‘Free’
…and don’t expect it to be free forever!