What could be better than free? For the last few months, I have been slowly building out a home lab. I bought my first rack, mounted a fancy router, ran ethernet cabling throughout the house, and installed a few access points. After a 6 month wait, I moved my workstation from an upright full tower into a rack mount 4U chassis. The new chassis had an issue: the intake and exhaust fan speed are controlled by the CPU temperature, but in this configuration, the CPU radiator is first to receive cool fresh air, then it dumps the waste heat on the GPU which is deeper in the chassis. For graphic intense games, the chassis fans would not spin up to give the GPU some help. After looking into external controllers, I was lucky enough to find open-source software that solved my issue completely. I could not be happier with the result. I donated to the developer; could have enjoyed the benefit with no cost, but is free software really free? This blog will explore the costs associated with free software.
We have almost certainly all used free software and services. Firefox for internet browsing, GIMP for image editing, VLC for media playback, Linux for operating system, and Blender for 3D graphics are a few popular open-source projects. Search engines and nearly all social media platforms are also free. While some applications are community developed, others are managed by some of the largest, and most profitable companies in recorded history. I would like to make the argument that most free software applications and services are profit driven but with some extra steps.
Why would anyone provide free software and who are they? There are two groups: independent developers and technology companies. There are many reasons why independent developers may release software for free: they are self-employed and can meet their needs through donations, they are building credibility, it’s a passion project, or the solution was for a problem where nothing was available, and lastly, they want to contribute to society with their talents. Motivations are a mix of entrepreneurship and altruism.
For technology companies, they may release free versions for users to test, for instance Alpha, Beta, or Early Access releases. This is used to gain early feedback before an official paid launch or build user numbers for a future sale to a 3rd party or switch to a freemium model, a very common practice in game development. Other models may include free base versions with paid enhancements or support. Lastly, the solution is always free because the users are the product being monetized.
If free software is largely a profit driven business model with extra steps, what are the costs if the product is free? All software requires maintenance. Who is going to pay for the maintenance and who is going to do it? If the software is free, is it realistic to expect any support, or if support is available what is the cost? If the owner of the software is not being compensated, is your organization dependent on their goodwill? What if they move on? Who has control? What happens if the ownership of the software changes? What if there are vulnerabilities discovered?
The most impactful is that most software solutions do not operate purely in isolation. Even if the software is free, it likely will be integrated into a larger system and what is the integration cost? If the software needs to be replaced for any reason, what is the replacement cost? Can the software be entrusted with sensitive data? What would the cost be of a failure or data breach? Then there are the human costs of adoption and training that need to be considered. It should be clear now that the incidental costs of software can be far larger than a licensing fee. If a paid version can mitigate any of these risks, the cost could be an order of magnitude cheaper than the free alternative.