Should You Use Free Software at Work?

Wednesday May 14th 2008 by Eric Spiegel
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There are upsides and downsides - but downloader beware.

“But it’s free!” I stood in the cube of an engineer on my team as he made his case about a free software tool that would supposedly solve a recurring problem we were having with our network. Sure it didn’t cost any money to purchase the tool, but what about the intangibles?

What if he spent hours trying to configure this free tool and still couldn’t get it to work? There would be the flushing sound of opportunity costs going down the drain.

Shareware and open source tools are becoming a mainstay in the world of IT. Don’t get me wrong, this isn’t a bad thing. At least it isn’t a bad thing if you choose wisely. And you must go into this free software world with eyes wide open with regards to the potential downsides.

I was thinking back to my mainframe days and realized that this free software idea just didn’t exist. Maybe it did to an extent with a tool like Syncsort, but I’m betting they had a distribution deal with IBM, so it wasn’t really free. And it was blessed by IBM.

Today, free software can be totally disruptive to business models because it is widely available through the Internet. IBM now blesses open source like Linux, but it’s immersed in their services up-sell strategy.

For engineers, free tools are seemingly no-brainers. They figure they can try it and if they don’t like it, they simply move on to the next option. If they ultimately have to pay for something (or write code themselves) they can at least plead the case with their manager for budget because they have exhausted their options.

Let’s assume you just Googled “free widget sniffer” and found some software that had a reasonable chance of solving whatever pressing problem you are facing. Before you click that download button, there are five things you should consider.

1. Don’t download anything until you do some due diligence.

Otherwise, you could end up with a corrupted, bogged down or virus-infected system. Check your usual message board haunts to see what other engineers are saying. Look the company name up and see if there is any bad press. See what you can find out about the tool authors or the management team of the company promoting the tool.

You can also check out free tool lists where you can find tools that have gone through some due diligence and reviews. Some sites to consider are Gizmo and FreeByte or something more mainstream like CNET.

In any case, if you find multiple independent sites that are raving about the free tool, then it is probably safe to download.

Consider doing a comparison of multiple free and priced tools instead of the “I’m feeling lucky” approach. Treat this like any IT project and compare the pros and cons of all the features offered. You may find that paying for a tool that has a unique, critical feature is the way to go.

2. What if you find the perfect tool, but end up having problems with it?

The amount of time you spend troubleshooting could hinge on the support available online. It’s doubtful any free tool will have phone support, and email support is likely to take days for a response. If you have a mission critical problem you are solving, then a priced tool with better support options would be a better option.

Thoroughly review the knowledge bases, FAQs and other self service support options. If the tool is wildly popular and has an active user community, then support likely will be available fast through community message boards.

3. Make sure what you are about to download is legal and doesn’t violate company policies.

Many companies are wary of open source because they don’t want to be involved in some future class action lawsuit by some vendor that claims their intellectual property was stolen by the open source vendor.

Now we all know that software piracy is prevalent and that engineers are big time culprits. The fact is, you are breaking the law if you are using any hacked software and are putting the company at serious financial risk by using software obtained illegally.

4. Let your manager and your team know what you are up to.

Sure this may raise questions that you don’t want to deal with, probably regarding my prior points, but it’s important that you don’t waste time on something that might be solved another way. Or it may turn out that your manager puts this at the bottom of your priority list and would not want you wasting cycles on it.

5. Explore the hidden costs.

Many vendors give away products so they can come back and sell you something else. When you register for the download, your information goes into their sales database. Most vendors respect privacy and won’t share data, but the fact is they have your information and their goal is to sell you something else. So expect a future sales pitch on add-on modules, support and maintenance or additional services.

Earlier I mentioned lost opportunity costs, mainly referring to the time lost on a product if it doesn’t pan out. You could also end up spending more time troubleshooting, wading through online knowledge bases or even having to attend some training. Even if training is free, it takes time.

Some products are free, but require you to pay for maintenance to obtain future upgrades. You may be able to get by with the baseline functionality, but be prepared to pay for future upgrades or services to totally fulfill your requirements.

These are all important considerations from the engineer’s perspective. Now that I’m working for a software vendor, I’m viewing the whole free tool thing from a different perspective. We are currently having a debate within our company about a new tool we have developed and whether or not we should give it away or sell it. The argument is to give it away and leave bread crumbs to our priced products, and then we’ll generate a slew of new sales leads – see #5 above.

I eventually acquiesced to the engineer and the tool turned out to be fantastic. So much so that we purchased other modules and maintenance and support. Hey, software vendors have to make a living too!

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