Wednesday, March 30, 2011

The Liabilities of Free Software

Anything obtained for free can certainly seem like a benefit. And sometimes it is, like the rare time when you stumble upon someone giving away a certain item that turns out to be worth much more than originally suspected, or to be much more useful than at first glance. In the case of software, however, free isn’t necessarily good, for a number of reasons.

There are different varieties of free software. The variety that is actually free, with no strings, may or may not suit your needs. Many times it doesn’t, and when actually examined, the reasons for this are pretty obvious. Prime among them is the fact that you can’t hire great software engineers for free, nor obtain the necessary development and testing hardware. This takes money. Hence, free products built by an individual or developed through an open-source scenario don’t have the robust engineering that has gone into paid-for software.

Another prime reason such software may not work well is that the developers involved, while well-intentioned, are not necessarily experts in the area the software is designed to address. Companies that specialize in, say, anti-virus, have the budget to pour into researching the most effective ways to combat computer viruses using the least amount of computer resources. They are also able to stay constantly abreast of the latest viruses and update their users. Or, developers that are expert in and focus on defragmentation have found ways to keep systems free of system-crippling file fragmentation, and will consistently be on top of operating system changes and anything else that affects the efficiency of their product.

The above reason can also apply to software companies attempting to be a “one size fits all,”  designing and selling software in areas they are not necessarily expert in simply in an effort to retain customers that have purchased their other products.

Another variety of free software is free trials. These can be more helpful, especially if all features are available. They are not always, though, so it is advisable to check. And in any case, they’ll almost always have time limitations on them. Eventually, you do better to purchase the full version of the product.

In finding the right software, the best advice that can be given is, free or not, check the functionality. Make sure it has the features that you actually need. Seek out users that have used the product through personal contact or through forums. If you can find something that genuinely does the job for free, great. But most of the time, you’ll find that purchasing a full version of a product from a company expert in the area you’re aiming to address, will be your safest and, in the long run, your most economic choice.

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