It seems like only yesterday, that we were inundated with a world wherein it seems so many software products were free. Do you remember Intranets? It started out free. But now it is now owned by Cisco, which owns WebEX, which had bought Intranets.
Free was so prevalent that you could even get a free computer as long as you agreed to use it for a certain period of time and see advertising. Computers are indeed now low cost, but definitely NOT free.
It appears that we might be on the verge of a rebirth of free. Microsoft Office Live offers a basic level of its service for free. It is advertising supported. Recently Unison Technologies launched a free, sponsor-supported unified communications platform. This platform, according to Unison competes with Microsoft Exchange and Google Apps.
Of course some services are free, and will always be free in the hopes that you will upgrade to the fee-based version of the product. But what I am referring to are products that are free and completely supported by advertising.
Let's also not forget open source software, which is free to use. Companies make their money by supporting or modifying the software.
If you are thinking of using free software for your business needs, there are several issues to consider:
- Work with a technology consultant to understand the pros and benefits of each offering. If you are comparing the free product (such as Unison Technologies) to a fee based product such as Microsoft Exchange you need to first ensure the free product can meet your needs now and in the future and that at the minimum it has no (or few) bugs, a good interface and the features you need -- compare all of this to the fee based product.
- Once you feel that it can meet your needs, you need to focus on support options. How will you get support for the product? Can your local consultant help? Do you need to pay support fees to the vendor providing the free product or service? Can you support the product with your own internal IT staff?
- Another thing to consider is does the product connect well with other applications you use. Sometimes you have a custom application or maybe an off-the-shelf application like Intuit QuickBooks or a sales force application. If you have a free product can it integrate with popular business applications that you or your partners are already using.
If you plan on growing a business that will last, building your business on free technology is something you should think carefully about, before doing. While free software is great for some users, such as productivity tools for your computer, it might not be the best thing to run your customers' payroll on.
So free or fee? It's not an easy decision, but is an important one.
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About the Author: Ramon Ray, Technology Evangelist, is the editor of Smallbiztechnology.com and author of Technology Solutions for Growing Businesses (Amacom). He is co-producer of the Small Business Summit events.