Building dependencies on free apps and services is bad practice

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.
Written by Ken Hess, Contributor

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.

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