Friday, December 19, 2008

The Hidden Costs of Free Software

With all the free software available online, you must be aware of the hidden costs before you run the risks. If you know the hidden costs ahead of time, you can plan accordingly.

Some examples of hidden costs include:

  1. Learning Curve
    Every software takes time to learn. Many free programs don't have the benefit of professional human interface development, so you get an interface designed by an engineer. Unfortunately, engineers don't necessarily think like users so they may layout the interface in a difficult to understand manner.

    I remember one particular 3D design software that included some of the most amazing features I had ever seen. The only downside was the impossible number of buttons that completely cluttered the interface making it impossible to work comfortably.

    Make sure you have an idea for how difficult it will be to learn the new, free software. If it will significantly impair your productivity then you might be better off looking somewhere else.
  2. Malware
    Too many free, online products come laden with all sorts of nasty surprises. In many cases these viruses, trojans and rootkits will sneak past even the best anti-virus software during the installation process. Before you download and install anything, make sure that it has been certified free of viruses and other malware by a respected third party authority. When in doubt, you can always contact R-Squared Computing and we will perform a full analysis of any questionable software for you.
  3. Ads/Spam
    Some free products defray their costs by placing banner advertisements inside the software. While this is usually not a problem, you might be concerned that it will make your business seem less professional if you have programs running with ads.

    Many free software providers will require that you provide them with an email address so they can send you offers. Sometimes, even though they say otherwise, they will sell your email address to other Internet marketers. Everyone has had the experience where they sign up for a newsletter and suddenly are inundated with junk mail.

    A good strategy to use whenever an online vendor asks for your email address is to provide them with a spam trap. Just create an email account with any of the multiple free email services like Yahoo! Mail or Gmail. Then use that email address whenever you are asked to provide an email online. If you want to be nice, you can check that account ever so often to clean out the junk. If not, who cares?
  4. Buggy/Error Prone
    You get what you pay for, sometimes. That means you might get software that has quirks and errors. These bugs can be a nuisance but they might still be better than paying for the similar commercial product. You can learn all about bugs and known issues by using the Internet to read reviews on the various free products available.

    You should never just rely on one review! You never know what the reviewers motives are, so be sure and check multiple reviews. The beauty of the Internet is the liberation of opinions and everyone online seems to have their own opinion on something. Check these opinions and make smart choices.

    Anyone that has used Google Documents will attest that the service has been in Beta stage forever. Beta software is any product that is stable enough for wide testing but is not really ready for commercial distribution. It also means that new features are still pending and will be made available later on. Beta products are notoriously buggy and prone to failure so always be careful when you work with beta products. Never rely on beta software for missionb critical needs!
  5. Availability
    If you are using online software, such as the aforementioned Google Documents, you should be aware that service outages will occur. The most recent Google Documents outage shut down several businesses for two days. Be aware that availability is always a concern when dealing with online software delivered as a service.

    Obviously this also extends to your Internet service provider. If your Internet has a habit of going down for long periods of time, you should look for a new provider. Until you have a more stable Internet service, you should avoid all online software offerings.
  6. Missing Features
    When it's free, you can't complain about what you get. Some free products may mimic commercially sold products very closely but there are usually some missing features. To stay with the Google Documents example, Microsoft Word offers a significantly better set of features for word processing. However, MS Word will run you about $200 against Google Documents price tag of $0. If you can live without the missing features then it's a no brainer to choose Google Documents. But if you need those missing features, you have to either buy Word or examine other free word processing software titles.

    To make good decisions you will need to know the features used by your employees in their daily work. Once you have identified all the required features you can begin to examine the available offerings. Chances are you will be able to find a product that meets all your needs. Now you just need to check it against the other five items on this list of hidden costs.
Obviously these are not the only kinds of hidden costs. I am sure you can think of a few that are not on the list. The idea is to examine carefully every software product to ensure it is a good fit for your business before flying off the handle. Don't jump too soon just because it's free.

R-Squared Computing - Business Technology Experts