As a non-profit organization whose mission it is to help other non-profits with their technology needs supported solely by volunteers and donations we’re very big proponents of free or low cost stuff. But is free always the right way to go for your Tech needs? Our recommendation will probably surprise you here in that the answer to that question is maybe. Meaning that sometimes the answer is a flat out no: Free or low cost is not the way to go. There are many reasons why you should look past a free technology solution and decide to go with a paid product and we’ll go over several of these reason here.
The first and most obvious reason is regulatory. Many times companies offer a free version of their product in order to entice you into buying a more feature rich version or versions that they sell. However, while the free version is “free” your organization might not qualify to use it even with your non-profit or educational status. Most of the time these free, lighter versions are only free to home users and not intended or licensed for commercial use. Chances are you can still easily install the software, but you would be in violation of the companies EULA (that long document most people agree to without reading that you have to get past before installing which stands for End-User License Agreement). That can open your organization to some hefty fines if you are ever audited and found to be using software illegally. And the fines are usually per installation so that can rack up rather quickly. Clearly that’s not a position you want to put your company in and certainly not worth the utility you get out of that free product in the end.
Another gotcha to look out for when assessing a free solution is features. So you actually read the EULA and found that your organization qualifies to use the program or service you’re looking at. That’s great, but there’s one key feature that’s missing in the free offering that you would otherwise have to pay for. Think long and hard before trading money for features. Don’t make the mistake of trying to fit a square peg in a round hole. The work arounds you or the folks who’ll use this solution that you chose, might have to perform to get the same results can easily make the cost of paying for a product much cheaper than the lost productivity a poor solution can create. That’s not to say that this tradeoff is always not worth it. What we want you to consider is if, this tradeoff is worth pursuing.
Service and support is another area that free solutions often don’t provide. Many open source solutions fall into this category. They can offer a very feature rich solution that can be every bit as powerful as any paid solution but there’s no support. Or at best support through forums where you might or might not get an answer or might get an answer after several days or even weeks. If it’s not a critical issue, it might not matter. But if we’re talking about a mission critical solution that your business depends on, that’s not a scenario you want to be faced with. Red Hat Linux built an empire by giving away their product but selling support for it. That’s how important support for a product can be. More so as the power and complexity of the solution goes up. Again you have to weigh the benefit versus the risk of trading money for support. If this is for a relatively non-complex solution or something that is low risk then your savings might be well worth the tradeoff. Even if it’s a complex solution but you have the talent to support it then again this might be a good fit. But if that’s not the case you’re better off passing on the free solution and partnering with a product that meets your needs in your time of need.
TCO or total cost of ownership is something else you need to consider. Many times the initial cost of an item or solution is not the only cost that you have to consider. The paragraph above about service is one such possible hidden cost you might be faced with. What if you do opt for a free solution, implement it and grow to depend on it but then something goes wrong. At that point you might not be in a position to find another free solution and toss the original one aside. You might be faced with some high costs for service or support that you can’t avoid but didn’t budget for. This applies to hardware too. A donated printer or computer that you rely on but has reliability issues or requires constant service might not be as cheap in the long run to operate as a new piece of equipment that comes with a good warranty. Another scenario to consider under this topic is getting “too much of a good thing”. Say you’re a small school and are awarded a grant to buy laptops for every student and teacher in the school. That sounds like an amazing win. You hit Lotto with this one and we’re talking Mega Millions not the pidly $4-$5 million jackpot either. Well not so fast. There’s a lot to consider here. Who’s going to set up all this hardware, not to mention support it when things inevitably go wrong. What about policies? There has to be some rules set forth on how to use this equipment, what’s allowed what’s not allowed, Etc. and let’s face it writing policies is no one’s favorite job. But is this scenario it would absolutely have to be done. Someone will have to stop what they are doing and come up with policies on how to use and administer this new equipment. What about your infrastructure? What’s going to happen to your network when 100 or even 50 new devices join the party and start to compete for IP addresses and bandwidth to the Internet? Can your wireless network even handle this many devices and traffic? Let’s say you do get your wireless network up to snuff but something goes wrong. What are you going to do when you’ve made everyone rely on having some form of connectivity to get through their daily tasks but don’t have a solution for when things break. Every one of these items mentioned about have one thing in common. A hidden cost that wasn’t considered before embarking on this journey that make what started out as free have a big long-term and unconsidered cost attached. These are all things you need to consider before taking any free gifts.
So after painting all these depressing scenarios we are not saying free is bad. Really, we’re not. The point we are trying to convey is that in every situation you have to do your due diligence and think things through. Don’t give free solutions a pass from this filter. Like I said earlier, we’re an organization predicated on providing free goods and services to others so we love free. But the solution has to make sense for the situation and for the person or organization using that solution.
We’re here to help. If you have questions please feel free to reach out to us. Even if we can’t provide you with a solution that’s the right fit we can certainly guide you towards the right solution.