Yet "free" sometimes costs more than we think. The pending shutdown of Google Reader serves as a reminder of the downsides of free or "freemium" technologies. Chief among them: Someone has to pay the bills; otherwise, the lights eventually get turned off. As InformationWeek's Thomas Claburn noted: "Online services cost money to operate and those using Reader weren't paying to keep the service running."
That straightforward fact extends well beyond the Google Reader case. It also underpins many of the problems free technologies cause for business users in terms of reliability, availability, security and other areas, according to Techaisle analyst Anurag Agrawal.
"It is better to use tools that require at least some payment for the services rendered," Agrawal said in an email interview. Agrawal believes free technology tools are better-suited for short-term projects and tasks: "For example, Google Docs to share a spreadsheet among school students signing up for a field trip, or Hitman Pro to remove malware from PCs or [a free trial of] Basecamp to manage a small project with 1-2 weeks duration," he said. Among other reasons for that mindset: It involves less exposure to long-term risk if that service disappears or is otherwise disrupted.
[ Free is risky, but so is choosing paid software. See Office 365: Why A Law Firm Switched. ]
But we like free. Why should we pay up? To be sure, there are plenty of reasonable use cases for free technologies. But business users that don't at least ask the question "why is this free?" might be ignoring potential problems down the road. Let's look at five hidden costs of "free."
1. Free Isn't Often Viable
No one, Google included, shuts down services because they're profitable. "Companies go out of business without revenue and profits," Agrawal said. When they do, users are often left in the lurch: "Users may lose their data and also have to find and train on a new solution."
So while free tools can solve a "now" problem without busting the budget, there's little promise that they'll continue to do so in the future. "Freemium models are still in vogue," Agrawal said. "However, not all companies succeed in converting free users to a sufficient number of paid users." When that happens, services -- or entire companies -- can disappear almost overnight. Take Loosecubes: The website offered freelancers and other professionals free short-term office space by matching them with area businesses that had desks to spare. It was a nice, community-minded idea -- but one with no apparent revenue streams. The company shut down on November 16; it sent an email to users announcing the closure on November 13.
Agrawal noted that products and services get mothballed regularly even when the companies behind them continue to operate: " "Companies may stop releasing updates or completely remove the product from the market," he said. "Again, users lose."
2. Free Is Not Always Forever
Just because Microsoft gives away 7 GB of free SkyDrive storage today doesn't mean they'll do so tomorrow. "Companies may change their product strategy and start charging for services that were free," Agrawal noted.
Google offers another example here: It recently discontinued the free version of Google Apps, which had been available since the suite launched in 2006. While apps like Docs and Drive are still available free to individuals, companies must now pony up for a Google Apps For Business account. Tough to fault Google for that choice, but if you picked Google Apps because "free" was cheaper than Microsoft Office, it's no throwaway concern.
3. You Get What You Pay For
The adage does come true, particularly in the freemium model, where Agrawal noted the goal is ultimately to turn users into "tool addicts" so that they can generate revenue from them later. Many free services are in fact stripped-down versions of the real deal. Security software is a good example: You can get dozens of desktop or mobile antimalware apps for free, but you'll get only the basic level of protection.
4. No Neck To Wring
"Free service" usually equates to "no customer service." You can't often give your product away and maintain a white-glove customer support organization, after all. "A free service has zero to limited support," Agrawal said, adding that when support does exist it's often in the form of canned emails that create frustration rather than alleviate it. That frustration spikes when problems occur and there's no neck to wring, so to speak -- it's tough to complain about "free," or rather it's tough to get someone to listen to that complaint. (This e-card perhaps puts it best: "I'm appalled that the free service that I am in no way obligated to use keeps making changes that mildly inconvenience me.")
The do-it-yourself set might be willing to make that cost-versus-support tradeoff; that's an appeal of open source platforms for some users, for example. Just be sure to realistically assess your support needs in advance -- not after things go wrong and there's no one to answer your call.
5. Privacy & Security Concerns
Writing about the Reader shutdown, InformationWeek's Claburn asserted: "Trusting any business to operate a service at no charge is trust misplaced." That misplaced trust includes matters of security, privacy and similar issues, too. One might argue the same is true of any online service, free or paid, but on the free side of the equation such concerns are -- or should be -- more of a given.
"Security of the data is always in doubt," Techaisle's Agrawal said.
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