Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Demystifying Free Software Solutions

Personally, when I'm shopping around for a personal or business related software, I'm tempted to go for free solutions.

Whatever the software need or the platform:  personal computer, Iphone or business server, I try to find a free software alternative. I'm obviously not talking of cracked software but of legally free software.

This is obviously an intersting economic solution but its very important to understand what we're getting into when we choose a free software solution.

In this article, I answer a few questions I regularly encounter:

1- Does free mean lesser quality?
No! It can be a factor but it generally isn't. For example, would you qualify Google or Facebook as quality deprived software?

Its important to understand that its not because a provider offers software freely that he doesn't expect to make money through it.  If that were the case, we wouldn't see as many free software solutions come out every year.

2- Why would a provider want to give away a software solution?
Software Providers are far from being idiots...after all that's what I do :)  If they give away a solution its because they have some diabolical plan in the works to make money or promote their business.

3- How can a software provider make money giving away software?
Firstly, its important to understand that free software does not always mean forever free or free for everything. In fact most free software are based on a free trial or based on free basic versions. In those cases, if you wish to pursue the use of the software or upgrade to another version, you need to open your wallet.

This being said, providers that offer utterly free software, will generally do it to promote their skills, to gather an important amount of clients quickly or to have their enterprise benefit from secondary means such as publicity.

4- Does free software mean that its open sourced?
Absolutely not...and this goes both ways.  Free software is not necessarily open source and open source software is not necessarily free.

Open Source means that the provider is willing to share the code in one of different ways: view, modification, distribution, etc. but it doesn't necessarily mean that the user can access it freely. Actually, there are many open source applications that require you to pay to have access to the code. On the other hand, offering software freely does not give you access to the intellectual property of the code. Its important to read the licences of every software solution to understand the implications.

5- Do I have any obligations when I choose to use a free software solution?
Generally yes. Most software are, and should be, associated to a licence agreement. The licence will explain what conditions are related to the use, distribution or modification of the software. There are for example some software solutions that can be free for personal use but not within a business. The licence agreement will also let you know if the provider will share your personal information with others. It will give you all the details of what is expected of you, the user, and what can be expected of them, the provider.

Its therefore important to read your licences carefully to make sure your use is legal and that you know what you're getting into.

6- Is free software aimed at every user type and every business type?
I'll admit that free software is generally aimed towards individuals or small businesses. The providers know that for this type of clientele, money is one of the main preoccupations. I'm not saying that large enterprises don't care how much they spend, but their software expenses are rarely their main budget preoccupations. Knowing this, to infiltrate the small business or individual sectors, a free or cheap solution is preferable.

The point of this article is simply to help you realize that free software isn't different from any other software: some are good and some are bad.  The important thing is to be properly informed, to read the fine prints and to make sure we understand the rules and implications behind our choice. I, myself, will continue to use and profit from such software for my business and personal needs. I can assure you that some of these tools are great and worth the implications (if any).

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