Free is great right? Everybody likes free food, free prizes, and free t-shirts, but what about your business? There are a lot of free tools and software available for business use that, at first glance, would appear to be a win-win. The provider makes money from ad revenue or the hope that you will subscribe to an upgraded package and you get a free tool for your business that would otherwise cost hundreds or thousands of dollars. The problem here is that relying too much on free software could leave your business vulnerable to unexpected expenses if the developer decides that they no longer want to offer their software for free.

Free software can be great as it allows you to try something without a large commitment of time and money and allows for some cost savings, but it shouldn’t be relied upon as a primary tool that is crucial to your business’s day-to-day operations. Unexpected changes or price increases can leave you scrambling to approve a new budget or find a replacement for software that has become a major part of your business. Even if another alternative is utilized, there is still the expense of wasted time transitioning and training employees on how to use a new program. If free software is a big part of your business, you need to have a plan in place in the event that the software suddenly changes or becomes subscription based.

A recent example of this issue is the (formerly) free remote desktop tool LogMeIn.  For those of you not familiar with LogMeIn, it is a tool that allows you to view and control another computer from a remote location. This tool was great for IT professionals and help desk operations since it was easy to use and most importantly, free.  Now that LogMeIn is no longer free, users will have to pay the yearly fee or find a suitable alternative. This has caused a bit of an uproar in the IT community who used this tool as a key part of their daily operations as well as home users who enjoyed a simple free tool for the occasional long distance remote computing. LogMeIn Pro now costs $99 a year to access up to two computers and $449 to access up to ten. Another issue with the LogMeIn example is the timing; users were given only a one week notice before the new policy is implemented.  A week is simply not enough time to business users make an informed decision on how to move forward or research and implement good alternatives.

If your company is currently using a free piece of software across a department, entire company, or is considering the use of free software in the future, here are some key questions to answer in order to plan for unexpected issues or price increases:

·         Do they currently offer a paid option? Is this paid option competitive with others options?
For most free software, the free options are not suddenly switched to fee based. Usually, the free option is removed and free accounts are migrated (after paying) to the lowest priced paid option. Another way to look at this question is “If the price of the product wasn’t free, what would you be willing to pay for it?”

·         Are there features in the software critical to your operation that aren’t available elsewhere?
If the answer to this question is “yes”, planning for a LogMeIn-type of rate increase is harder to do since you must determine how critical these unique options are to your business, and what the best alternative is. A similar comparison would be if you compared Microsoft Office to Google Docs.

·         Is the data easily exported out of the presently-free software?
Whether it’s a significant package of software or a small note-keeping or task list app, do not use or even consider implementing a free piece of software that does not allow you full control and access over your data. This type of situation is extremely dangerous since a software crash or migration to a new system would involve re-inputting data manually into the new software. Oppositely, software that does not allow for the import of various data formats may be equally time consuming and cumbersome to use.

The appeal of using free software in a business setting is very tempting for obvious reasons, but there is always the potential that it won’t stay free for long. If you must use free software or feel it is the best fit for your individual situation, make sure you are prepared for for the end of the "free trial".

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  1. Free is good — no question about it — but you still "get what you pay for," in my experience paid remote support tools like logmein, R-HUB remote support servers, teamviewer etc. are worth.