Can Your Business Afford “Free” Technology?

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Google’s announcement that its popular news application Reader will shut down in July sent shockwaves across the blog community. There have been protests, petitions, and migrations (we’re currently trying out Newsblur as a replacement).

This same hand-wringing happens every time Facebook makes a change to its privacy settings, or Google announces a new search policy, or email providers introduce more and smarter ads. When you’re not paying for a product you become the product, usually through advertising, and that means companies have to continually work to find ways to make their services attractive to the people who pay the bills.

So, all those great “free” Internet services you know and love? They’re not really free, and they don’t really belong to you. That leads to an important question: can your business afford to depend on that kind of technology?

Think about that most vital of modern communication tools, email. People generally get a free email address from one of the big players (Google, Microsoft, Yahoo!) A lot of small businesses just starting out do the same thing: maybe you managed to get your company name at fill-in-the-blank email provider, and posted a link to that address on a personal Facebook page. Wow, that was so easy, and free! Why would you ever need web or email hosting?

The answer comes when you realize your email is stored on someone else’s server that you don’t have access to or control over. If that company suffers an outage or a hacking scandal, you have to suffer without any support and you don’t get a choice in how to respond to the situation. Plus, you don’t have robust spam filtering options, a fact that becomes abundantly clear after a week of your email address becoming publicly available on a social network. If you want to change anything about your email, you have to figure it out on your own with only the aid of help pages on your email provider’s website.

Let’s look at another scenario: there are plenty of people who think they and their business can get by on a free model of computer tech support. After all, there are free antivirus software for download online, relatives and/or friends with IT and web skills, and you and your employees know how to be safe online, right?

In the last few years the number of successful phishing and hacking attacks has risen to huge numbers, with major companies like Google, Yahoo!, The New York Times, and LinkedIn admitting that even with the best safeguards in the industry in place, someone managed to bypass security and gain access to sensitive data. In the case of the New York Times, the paper’s partnership with a leading security agency allowed it to gradually close up the security holes used by the hackers to get in while keeping the bad guys out of the most sensitive parts of the Times network. Would your free download give you that option?

When we create software for a client, we turn over the source code to that business. When a person uses an open source project like WordPress (a software we use to build most of our websites), there’s at least the comfort that the source code is available to use and adapt even if “WordPress” the organization goes away.

When a “free” online service that relies on user logins goes away, there’s no ability to ever get back the software in that format. Here’s how Slate writer Farhad Manjoo put it (emphasis in bold added):

Just paying for software doesn’t guarantee its longevity—companies that accept your money can always go out of business. But companies that take your money are at least signaling to you that their software is just as important to them as it is to you. On the other hand, companies that don’t take your money and won’t even say how the product you love will ever make money—hey, they’re fun for a romp, but don’t be surprised when they ditch town in the middle of the night.

So, are the best things in life free? For intangibles like happiness, peace, or love, the answer’s absolutely yes; for everything else, especially your technology, that’s probably a big “No.”