Freeware is software that you can access and use for free — that is, without incurring any monetary costs. When you need a software solution and a freeware option comes up, it almost feels like you’ve hit the jackpot.
But is freeware truly free? After all, even free software costs time and money to make. Hundreds, even thousands, of hours go into developing a solution and releasing it to market. If making software requires this much effort, why offer it up free of charge?
The truth is that there are hidden costs to “freeware”. So, what is the dark side of freeware, and how can you make sure it won’t come back to bite you in the wallet?
Why Is Freeware Useful?
There’s a necessity for businesses to rely on and use third-party tools, including free ones. Free tools help drive businesses. After all, who hasn’t used Google Docs for collaborative working? How many websites are built with WordPress?
The right freeware tool could connect you with more of your customers. Or it might boost efficiency, encourage collaboration, or fuel productivity by increasing your mobility. Freeware might even be a “toe-dipping” exercise – allowing you to explore a new technological trend before you commit to spending.
For the vendor, freeware is an opportunity to generate leads and promote brand awareness. By giving away their solutions for free, vendors can quickly build a customer base that can later be monetized.
The most common ways to monetize freeware come within its subsections: “freemiums” and “shareware”. Freemiums are free versions of software with restricted functions. They’re released with the goal of encouraging users to upgrade to a paid “premium” version. Shareware, meanwhile, is freeware that’s only free for a set amount of time. It encourages users to share it around, and once the time is up, you pay to continue using the program.
Many free tools are useful, and they’re fairly harmless when it comes to testing them out because they haven’t cost you money. However, it’s important to remember that not all costs are monetary. There is a dark side to freeware, and that includes the potential for some less tangible costs.
Freeware still requires time to learn and deploy, and because it’s free, you’re unlikely to have access to dedicated technical support and customer service. So, setup can be a sinkhole for hidden costs. For example, initial costs might include the time it takes to download or onboard online. If you want to migrate your data to the new app, that’s going to cost time (and sometimes money as well).
Then there are the lost work hours spent learning how to use the new application unaided. For some freeware applications, this might be a quick, low-cost process. For others, it could take much longer. Just be wary that you’re not conceding so much on your needs — simply to get the freebie — that it no longer justifies the implementation and learning-curve costs.
Cost of Security
There are many freeware products out there that are both beneficial and safe to use. Unfortunately, there are also many that are less security-friendly. Three potential security-based costs affect freeware: the risk of malware, the security of the program, and the third-party provider’s access to your data.
Freeware solutions may require a download to use, as is the case with any desktop-based programs. This means that some freeware comes with the risk of inadvertently downloading malware or spyware onto your machine. So, if the freeware isn’t coming from a reputable source, it’s time to walk away.
That doesn’t mean that web-based freeware is exempt from potential security costs. Online products don’t allow you to control the storage or protection of your data in the same way that desktop apps do. Is the vendor forking out for top-security cloud hosting to keep you safe? When you opt for online-based freeware, you need to consider the security of the solution and their hosting model.
You also need to consider the safety of your data with any software solution — even more so when the program is freeware. Be sure to question what access the third-party supplier will have to your (and your customers’) data. Could you – and that data you provide – be the real product?
Cost of Sudden Changes
Finally, there are the costs related to any sudden changes that could befall the freeware you use. For example, there’s a risk with freeware that the vendor could change, stop supporting, or even discontinue their free offering. You could access your freeware solution, only to find that the third-party provider has removed or restricted access to the features you use most.
This leads to costs for you. You end up paying to upgrade to the paid version of your once freeware, incurring the cost of upgrading, but gaining more functionality in your chosen solution. Or, you face the costs in time that it takes to source and shift to a new solution to meet your needs.
Either way, your status as a free user is unstable. It leaves you less protected against change than you would be as a paying customer with SLAs and contracts in place.
Beneficial with Caution
Now, all this might make freeware sound like a bad idea. However, it’s important to remember the benefits that these solutions offer. If the benefits you gain offset the potential costs, then the freeware becomes worth considering.
The key is caution. As with any software solution, it can take time to find the right one for you. By being aware of the potential risks and costs of freeware, it’s easier to avoid being burned by freeware that turns out to be fee-ware.