Building dependencies on free apps and services is bad practice

Building dependencies on free apps and services is bad practice

Summary: How many times have you seen free services disappear, switch to non-free, restrict you too much or have no value — even free of charge? I've seen it more than I want to admit to.


I came up with the idea for this post when researching information for a post that a reader requested on free and inexpensive VPN services. The numerous dead ends and disappointments led me to write this post on avoiding free apps and services, especially in business. Building dependencies on free services is poor business practice and you shouldn't do it. 

Everyone wants something for nothing. We all want to get rich quick. We want to duplicate ourselves. We want to work smarter not harder. We want to work with our hands and not get our fingernails dirty. We want to make a million dollars without any investment. We want to place ads in newspapers and make money in our sleep. And we all want to make millions in real estate with no money down and get money back at closing. Have I covered all the bases? I think you get the point that we like free stuff and stuff that we don't have to work for or put out any effort for. Wouldn't you agree? Free software and technical services have that same sort of seductive bent to them. I think I'd rather pay something for what I get and get what I pay for.

There's a saying in Argentina, "How expensive is cheap?*"

There's a saying in America, "You get what you pay for."

However, I think Americans (I can't speaking for Argentinians) love to seek out something cheap or free more than any other people on the planet. Call it greed, call it thrift, call it frugal or call it Fool's Gold; it ends up the same way every time. Badly.

Now, let me clear up something right away before I raise the hackles of the free software movement and get an Inbox full of hate mail. Free, or incorrectly referred to as open source, software is the exception. Software that is free of charge, free of licensing restrictions, free of cumbersome closed source regulations and free of patents is the exception. Free software is different. It's the topic of another story, for sure.

Above, when I referred, to free software, I meant software that isn't free that you want for free. OK, I'll just say it, pirated software. You might think that it's free because you didn't pay money for it but most of the "free" software that's pirated contains malware of some sort. You're not doing yourself any favors by using it. Plus, it's illegal.

On the topic of free services, such as VPN services, I noticed a pattern: free isn't really free. Sure, you don't pay money to use the services, but the service is slower, restricted, ad-filled, or simply a try-before-you-buy service. I suppose that there's nothing wrong with any of those options but be warned that you're not going to get a service such as VPN free of charge without some catch. 

The reason is that VPN or virtual private network services are too expensive to setup and maintain to allow unlimited user access and charge nothing for it. You just can't run a business that way. I hope someday that politicians figure out you can't run governments that way too.

What are the dangers of free apps, services and pirated software? Namely: malware, viruses, licensing, copyrights and security leaks. I'm not implying, in any way, that the free VPN services are up to anything shady or unsavory. Quite the opposite. I think that the free VPN services are probably OK but you need to watch out for limitations on speed, how much you can use them and other restrictions. Building business or personal dependencies on these services is a bad practice not because of theft or privacy problems but because of the limitations and restrictions that they impose on you.

Free apps aren't necessarily bad but some free apps are bad in that they prompt you to download in-app software that will steal your data and compromise your privacy. For more information on those, refer to the Related Stories section at the end of this post. I provided a lot of statistics in them for threats such as privacy-leaking apps.

Free apps and services can have a place in your business or personal computing life but be aware that those services come with restrictions, ads, limitations and the possibility that their service life will be short. Paid services and software also include support, patches, upgrades and security**.

The takeaway for this post is that you do, in fact, get what you pay for. With the notable exception of free software, you never get something for nothing.

[Author's Note: There is an upcoming post on inexpensive VPN services.]

*This quote came from a friend of mine in Argentina one day when we were discussing the pros and cons of offshore outsourcing. 

**Paid does not mean 100 percent secure but it does mean that you have a responsible party behind the software or service that might have legal responsibility for your losses. Free, pirated and other non-paid offerings aren't likely to come with any warranties.

Related Stories:

Don't you just love mobile apps? So do malicious code writers.

The second most important BYOD security defense: user awareness

10 security best practice guidelines for businesses

10 security best practice guidelines for consumers

Topics: Software, Piracy, Privacy, Security


Kenneth 'Ken' Hess is a full-time Windows and Linux system administrator with 20 years of experience with Mac, Linux, UNIX, and Windows systems in large multi-data center environments.

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  • the cost of freeware

    Google, Google, Google. Just remember. Nothing is free, nothing. Freeware is a lure. What we giving in return is our privacy, our freedom our consent to be spied, studied, profiled, analysed. Please support proprietary applications. At least you know the real cost of buying a software that comes in a box and when you kneed an SAAS application, please keep in mind the cost of that business model.
    • Wow

      Love my job, since I've been bringing in $5600… I sit at home, music playing while I work in front of my new iMac that I got now that I'm making it online.(Click Home information)
    • Re: Nothing is free, nothing.

      How much did you get paid to say that?
      • Not a single $

        I do it for free. Especialy for you.
        • Re: Not a single $

          So it was free?

          But you said "Nothing is free, nothing." Were you lying?
    • How do you know...

      Just one question: how do you know that app you paid $39.00 for isn't "spying" on you? Just because you paid money for it? Google has shown that there are billions to be made from data analytics. Why do you think a software publisher is going to give that up just because you paid him for the software package he sold you? I suspect there's a lot more data mining going on with paid software than many people realize.
  • Not to defend Google .... but how is it different???

    Than proprietary software??

    Yes, with Google it is GUARANTEED that you will get screwed. The moment something stops being a good spyware product, Google will yank out support (if they ever give you any).

    But how is that any different than the million of one-hit-wonder proprietary software packages in the market?? Or one of big guys becoming another casualty of the economy??

    Anybody remembers Borland?? Or the very many SDKs canned by Microsoft???
    • Web services disappear within a few months

      As a company you have to turn around within that time period. On the other end, I've seen systems still using Borland's ObjectVision forms. Owning the software and the platform the company doesn't have to spend resources to change that particular system. That's a big difference.
    • From a users perspective

      I was talking on a user's perspective. When you buy a software, you gain the right to use it for as long as you want. When it comes to software development platforms, it all comes down to our ability to spot what will and what will not gain momentum and last one the same occasion. I've been working with server forms for a few year but I have decided to switch to .Net Mvc because I think it is where Microsoft will push harder in years to come. I could be very wrong however.
      • Slight correction

        "When you buy a software, you gain the right to use it for as long as you want."

        It would be more accurate to say that you are granted the privilege to use it for as long as the licensors are willing to let you use it. Pretty much every EULA has two specific limitations:

        1) They reserve the right to cancel the license at any time, for any reason.
        2) You have no legal recourse in the event of catastrophic failure (unless the law mandates that they are accountable, in which case you will only be able to get the higher amount between $50 and the sale price of the license).

        The second point makes it kind of amusing to me that people argue lack of accountability as a downside for free software, open source, etc.--the company is pretty much immune to liability if the software goes wrong.
        Third of Five
        • Open source

          One thing I'll say for open source software is this: it's not going to suddenly stop working 90 days after the company that produced it goes bankrupt and it can't check in with the, now defunct, licensing server. So there's that.
          • I certainly agree

            That does work with my point (I was going more for lack of accountability on the part of proprietary vendors), but the issue of a licensing server going down (either because of EOL or because of server outages *cough* EA *cough*) is something that wouldn't come up with open source.
            Third of Five
  • "legal responsibility"?

    "Paid does not mean 100 percent secure but it does mean that you have a responsible party behind the software or service that might have legal responsibility for your losses. Free, pirated and other non-paid offerings aren't likely to come with any warranties."

    Obviously you've never read an EULA (then again, many people don't read them). Even if the software somehow sets your office complex on fire, at absolute best they're only on the hook for the cost of the software. Otherwise, they're completely in the clear and you're left holding the bag.

    Then there's the idea of server-based authentication. If it's up to the vendor to "activate" your software, the vendor can also "deactivate" it, although so far vendors have only gone so far as to shut down authentication servers. It's only a matter of time before some enterprising (and ruthless) company decides to take it to the next level and just arbitrarily deactivate customers' software, either as a vulgar display of power or as an attempt to get customers to buy the next version.
    Third of Five