Free Vs Paid Software

In life, the best things are no doubt free. But in business we’re told there is no free lunch. As someone who thinks a good lunch is one of the best things in life, I’m in a bit of a quandary. But in all seriousness, if something is free I don’t think I’m alone in wondering “where’s the catch.” I may have forgotten a lot from my economics classes, but the fact that there is always a cost related to a benefit has stuck with me.

As a construction software developer, I have always been dubious of any software that is given away for free. Because I know it certainly isn’t free to develop, and in general you get what you pay for. When one looks into free software, one usually finds it is being given away either as a loss-leader for another purchase, as a way to establish a customer base without relying on value, or as a marketing expense to build brand awareness.

I decided long ago to charge for my own product—enough to put money back into a growing company, and enough to buy a decent lunch (I recommend the sandwiches at Mohito restaurant near our office). I’d let the market vote with its dollars and hopefully choose my product. Enough votes have been cast to keep us going and growing for over 30 years, so a big thanks to those readers out there who are also customers.

But recently I decided to do something I never thought I would. Give away software for free. Not for any of the reasons above—and I suppose not actually for free. But when we re-designed our construction management software to be web-based, we realized that since there was no client software to deliver or even download, there was no reason why everyone at a client’s company shouldn’t have access to the dashboard and some basic applications they could use. And when we launched a new web-based project management product recently, we decided that a client should be able to let their subcontractors and other partners use aspects of the system without having to pay to play.

My message here is not about my products. My message is that I think one of the results of construction software moving to the Cloud will be the availability of more applications that are free—provided folks still understand that there is a price to pay at some point. Developers like me can more easily afford to make a subset of applications or functionality available to a larger group of people because of the inherent efficiencies afforded to us by using the Web as a software platform. Now if you’ll excuse me, it’s lunch time…

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