Whether we’re building and managing a customer’s website or helping them implement sales management practices and controls, it’s not uncommon to include a software component or tool as part of the project.
We always want to find the best tool for the job but we almost always start by looking at the “free” software options. Recently, a customer asked, “Could we run our entire company on free software?”
I thought it was a great question which could quickly be followed by “Would we want to?” and “How much does ‘free’ really cost?”
The Free Software World
I can’t remember a time in the last 30 years when there were as many “free” software options available. Whether you download and install it on your own computer or access from your browser, it seems like there are free options just about everywhere. But people often use the terms “free” and “open source” interchangeably and they don’t mean the same thing.
“Open source” means that the source code – the code that the programmers write – is available to you when you acquire the software. And further, you can freely modify that source code to meet your needs. While it’s true that many software companies that ascribe to an open source model also make some version of their software “free”, not all open source software is free.
“Free” means that you don’t have to pay a license fee to acquire the software and, more importantly, you don’t pay on-going license fees to run it in your organization.
Why do companies offer free versions of their software? There are many different reasons but I believe it's so they can get some traction – get their product out in the market and get people hooked on using it. In many cases, the company will have multiple versions. A free version and then paid versions with more features. The free version may suffice for managing a small business but when it grows or when the customer needs some advanced functionality, they can only get that by paying for a different version. If the company also ascribes to the open source philosophy, by making their software freely available with source code, they’re also getting input on fixes and new features from programmers at organizations that are using their software (called the “community”) – in effect, “free” programming input.
Can I run my business on free software?
Let’s get back to the main question. The short answer is “yes”. If a business needs standard software systems such as accounting, inventory, H/R, customer management, and desktop productivity (spreadsheets, word processor, calendar), they could find many good free options right now. There are also commercially viable free operating system (desktop and server), database, and infrastructure (email, website management, etc.) solutions that are readily available. A small company of ten employees with no extraordinary software needs could probably find and install the software applications listed above in a single day and be ready to roll. Of course, they would have setup time and would need to learn how to use it, but the applications would be there for them to acquire.
Could a company buy computer hardware with nothing on it, find free software, and install it to run their business? Yes, no doubt.
What does “free” software really cost me?
Free versions of software generally have some drawbacks. As mentioned above, free versions often have the basic functionality users need but may not contain ALL of the functionality found in one of the company’s paid versions. If you have a small business in Buffalo, NY and all of a sudden you start making sales into Canada, your free accounting system may not support multiple currencies.
Your free inventory software may be just what you need – until you need multiple warehouses. The software may only support that in a paid version.
Besides features, free software is generally lacking support from the vendor. If you have a problem or even a question, it’s either not available to free version users or you might have to pay every time you contact them. That can be frustrating at the least and if your support needs are great, it renders the free version unusable to you.
One of the things going for open source products is that they generally have “community” support from all the other users and programmers around the world who use the product and modify to meet their needs. Many open source vendors host online support forums where users can post questions, enhancement requests, tips, or other helpful information. The company itself may respond to questions posted in the forums or rely on the community of users around the world to support each other. Some of these communities are tens of thousands strong and the community support is more than adequate for free users. Other times the community is not strong and the vendor does not participate, leaving users with no answers when they issues arise. Customers who have strong support needs often will opt for the paid versions just to have access to the company’s support.
One more area of “cost” in free software for me is integration with other solutions – or making the different software systems talk to each other. No one wants to enter the same customer information in 5 different systems. Application vendors have long been known to focus on their products without much thought/investment in connecting to other systems. Over the last decade this has gotten better. It’s not uncommon any more to have a “connector” built into your CRM that will interface with a standard accounting system. However, in the free world, it’s almost guaranteed that any standard connectors to other applications will be missing – even if the company has them in their paid versions. That means you’ll have to integrate them yourself and if you don’t have support, you’ll have to figure it out by yourself too.
We have a small company and although we could use free accounting software, we opt to use a “paid” version of our accounting software. We want access to support if we need it (we haven’t) and product updates.
But even the largest most complex businesses might always use a free software package somewhere in their organizations. The most widely used content management systems (CMS) for websites are free and used by millions of organizations. The product features and support are fantastic.
Yes, a company could run all of its basic functions using free software. If they have a strong internal technical team and select products with very strong communities for support, it's likely that they could comfortably live with a collection of free applications. But over time, I think most companies will migrate some, if not most, of their software applications to paid versions.