Monday, 14 April 2008

There’s No Such Thing As Free Software

Filed under: Business of Software — Jan Goyvaerts @ 20:14

If you drop my (product) name, I have to respond. :-) Jeff Atwood wrote an article titled We Don’t Use Software That Costs Money Here. The title came from a comment by Henrik Sarvell saying:

Yes, I also have to brush up on the regex from time to time. We don’t use software that costs money here, and last time I checked RegexBuddy wasn’t free.

I got bad news for Henrik: there’s no such thing as free software.

Software is always acquired at some cost, even if you don’t pay a penny to the people that write it. In fact, for most downloadable software available to a general audience, the license fee is only a small part of the price you pay for using the software.

First, there’s the time you spend getting the product to run and learning how to use it. Even if you don’t put a dollar amount on your time, time you spend figuring out a shoddy piece of software is time you don’t spend writing your own software, or taking the kids to the beach. Thouse precious minutes/hours/days are never coming back. That initial outlay gets worse if you have to evaluate multiple competing products. And it goes on when you have to install bugfixes or work around unfixed bugs.

If you choose an inferior product because the best tool for the job comes with a recurring subscription fee, you might still end up paying more. Time you spend fighting your tools is time you don’t spend moving your business forward. Not to mention if you’re paying employees for their time to use the bad tools you’ve chosen (or let them choose). I find it very ironic that developers in some large companies have to deal with purchase orders and what not to acquire a $39.95 tool that will easily save the company hundreds of dollars in employee time, even with moderate use.

So you’re saying that free software is about freedom and open source, not about pinching pennies? Well, even there you have no total freedom. The theory goes that if you have the source code and a free software license, you can do whatever you want with it. Well, no.

The Just Great Software website runs on a mixture of Apache, MySQL, PHP and Perl. All darling products of the free software world. Great stuff too. See: I’m not knocking free software at all. The free choice can be the best choice. But not by default.

So can I do whatever I want with this software? In theory, yes. In practice, no. When do you thing was the last time I made some changes to the Perl compiler to make it better suit my needs? Ha! I don’t even want to think about looking at that source code. I’d have to pay a team of programmers to do it. And I doubt I could afford it.

So for me, it doesn’t really matter if Perl’s source code is available or not. What matters is that my development tools do what I want and that they’re actively maintained. For my web server I’ve chosen to go with free software. For my desktop applications, I use CodeGear Delphi, which comes with a proprietary license, a hefty license fee, and most of the source code! And I actually do look at and modify Delphi’s library code. First thing I do when installing a new version is merging my changes with the new version.

To me, avoiding software because it has a price tag is a dumb policy. Instead, the price tag should be just one more consideration. Sometimes a free product will be the best solution. Other times a commercial product will be better.

Ironically, Henrik Sarvell writes in the same comment:

I work in Thailand in an environment with an extreme employee turnover.

I don’t know his business, but perhaps the turnover at his company would be lower if his employees had the best tools to work with, even if they’re not free. RegexBuddy is made in Thailand.


  1. […] recently argued that there’s no such thing as free software. All software costs a combination of time, money and “being stuck with it”. Of course, […]

    Pingback by Micro-ISV.asia » How to Compete Against Free Software — Wednesday, 16 April 2008 @ 15:03

  2. Jan, I totally agree with you – sometimes the free software is better than paid one, and sometimes the other way round.

    The first example we all know about – Firefox vs. IE. Every independent computer specialist would agree that Firefox is much better than IE: it’s quicker, more secure and has got better user interface.

    The second example is from my programming career – .Net vs Java. I personally find that .Net “all under one roof” approach is much better than Java+Eclipse open source combination. It’s quicker to develop with .Net, the help is better and the stability of it is impressive. There are probably people who will disagree with me but that’s my opinion.

    Comment by George The Computer Specialist — Sunday, 7 December 2008 @ 4:07

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