Free Software and Hidden Costs

The Price of Free Software

Let’s talk for a minute about the topic of free software. As you may know I am deeply involved with the Mautic community which offers a free marketing automation platform. This platform is free, open source and available for immediate download by anyone interested. I am thrilled to be able to play a part in this community which seeks to support businesses, organizations, and people in their marketing efforts without asking for anything in return.

I have over a decade of experience in this type of environment as I’ve previously volunteered my time in the Joomla community as well as spending time in both WordPress and Drupal communities. All of these communities are centered around a free product and also an open source one. Their content managements systems can be downloaded and installed and used with no payments made. These are merely three additional examples drawn from personal experience, hundreds if not thousands of other communities exist to provide free software. This leads to an inevitable question. Is free software truly free? What is the hidden price of free?

I’m going to break this down into three sections. First, we’ll examine monetary costs, second we’ll look at secondary costs, and lastly we’ll look at future costs. After each section we’ll draw a conclusion.

The Monetary Cost of Free Software

This first point may seem almost ludicrous since we’re discussing free software and by very nature free software implies that there is no monetary cost. However, unfortunately in some cases free software is limited software. These types of free software are poor restricted attempts to win customers by offering something free which in truth is merely a hint or shadow of what the software should do.

tethered swimming free software

This is a uniquely cruel form of torture and one which should be abolished and abhorred. No software intentionally shackling or tethering the user under the guise of free software should be allowed to exist as free software. This kind of “free software” does indeed have a very high monetary cost and unfortunately gives all other types of free software a bad name.

Conclusion: All free software has not been created equal.

The Secondary Costs of Free Software

There are, of course, additional costs associated with a software platform that exist far beyond the money spent in acquiring the software. These are indeed very real and should not be forgotten. Let me name just two of these secondary costs for you.

  • The Learning Curve: With free software there is a learning curve which the user must overcome before they are comfortable using the platform. This learning curve requires time and dedication. This time can be extremely expensive. And yet, I would challenge you with a question. Could I not remove the word “free” from the first sentence and the statement would remain the same? “With software there is a learning curve which the user must overcome before they are comfortable using the platform.” Yes, this statement is also true and valid.
  • Training & Support: Free software may not cost for its use, but there are training and support expenses which result from the use of this software. And again, these costs would be equally attributed to paid systems as well. Every time software is implemented there is an opportunity for training and support fees to be provided.

So we see that there are opportunities for additional secondary costs associated with free software. There is something though that I touched on briefly in the second part of the Learning Curve cost. The time involved in learning a new platform, of any kind, is a cost that can be most exorbitant. But here’s an interesting suggestion. When dealing with a free community full of active volunteers this learning experience can be much aided through network of others. This type of learning can never be accomplished in the same volume by a paid software company. Thousands of volunteers working and participating on the improvements of the software able to answer your questions, offer advice, and improve your understanding makes your learning curve easier with free software.

Conclusion: All software has secondary costs.

The Future Costs of Free Software

Here we explore the potential future costs as a result of implementing free software. Some would suggest that because free software is free it must then be unsustainable and more liable to disappear in the future. I find this somewhat ironic. These communities which exist purely for the growth and improvements of the software and are not tied to a for-profit business serve to exist for far longer times. Successful communities will be able to continue without fear of failure due to lack of funds. Now free software where the code is also open source means the code will be forever in existence and available to everyone, anywhere. And lastly, due to the sheer size of free, open source communities volunteering there is a much larger development pool capable of continuing on the progress and improvements to the software.

Conclusion: Free software is not bound by for-profit corporations for future existence.

I am not foolish to assume that all free software is as wonderful as the software I listed at the beginning of this post. These are both free and open source software tools which are a bit different from just examining “free software” however, my background and experience leads me to speak to this type of free software. There are of course other, far worse examples of free software which harm the concepts of the software listed here.

And lastly, you may notice that the second item listed is the only example where actual costs may exist. This is indeed a cost associated with free software. However, as I stated this cost exists regardless of the nature of the software. Both free and not-free software hold these secondary costs. Therefore I believe it is fair to say these costs are valid to be disregarded when valuing the cost of software since they will exist in any situation.

I conclude then that while there may be costs associated with free software you will find that these costs are far, far less then in other situations and ultimately you will still find free software to be more cost effective than the alternative.