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If you get what you pay for, what if you pay nothing?

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This is Leo Notenboom with news, commentary and answers to some of the many questions I get at askleo.info.

Last week I mentioned that I had switched to using Thunderbird, which is a free, open source email client similar to Microsoft's Outlook Express or Outlook.

After seeing someone's on-line compendium 30 essential pieces of free and open software, it dawned on me that using Thunderbird - or any free software for that matter - could be considered at odds with my ongoing rant about relying on free email services such as Hotmail.

I mean, you get what you pay for, right?

To me it boils down to a couple of simple issues: quality and support.

Thunderbird has proven itself for a while. It works. It's a good piece of software. And if I do have problems with it, there's an active user community - often including the very developers who work on it - ready to help.

Hotmail on the other hand, which is my common target only because of the volume of mail I get on it, seems to suffer from problems regularly, and when you do have a problem, there's really nowhere to turn.

There's a lot of good, free software out there. Some of it, like Firefox and Thunderbird, compete very favorably against their commercial counterparts. Some of it, like Open Office, competes well, but still feels rough around the edges at times. And naturally there's a lot of really bad free software out there as well.

So when is free software worth it?

I go back to quality and support. Invest a little time in finding out how others are experiencing any free software that you're considering, and how it meets your needs. Find out how well documented the software is (a common issue with free programs) what support options there are, and whether those are even active. There are plenty of so called support forums out there full of nothing but unanswered questions.

And if you do try one, don't put all your eggs in the shiney free basket right away. For example, though I've been using Thunderbird heavily for over a week now, you know I'm still set up to switch back Outlook at a moments notice should a disaster happen. I don't expect it, but won't risk it either.

Investing money in a commercially produced and supported product is often a wise and expedient investment. But investing some time to look at the free and open source alternatives can also be a very wise investment as well.

I'd love to hear what you think. Visit ask leo dot info, and enter 10968 in the go to article number box. Leave me a comment, I love hearing from you.

This is a presentation of askleo.info, a free on-line technical question and answer service. Hundreds of questions and answers are online and ready to help solve your computer problems.

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Article C2859 - December 2, 2006 « »

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Leo Leo A. Notenboom has been playing with computers since he was required to take a programming class in 1976. An 18 year career as a programmer at Microsoft soon followed. After "retiring" in 2001, Leo started Ask Leo! in 2003 as a place for answers to common computer and technical questions. More about Leo.

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9 Comments
Mary
December 3, 2006 3:52 PM

I still consider myself a novice when it come to computers so I find myself relying heavily on people such as yourself. Do you have an opinion about sites such as majorgeeks, cnet, tucows and snapfiles? Can their opinions be trusted? Do you have a favorite online source for freeware?

David L.
December 8, 2006 8:12 PM

I probably use more free software than paid software. I have found there is a lot of good free programs that are as good or even better than their paid equivalents.That said you do have to be careful as there is a lot of free junk out there as well, but if you do a little research you can usually avoid the junk.

Hal Steis
December 9, 2006 8:54 AM

I have always been amazed at the generosity of people and companies who freely share their work with others.
I know it is a sales tool but so what?
I use and recommend to my friends free anti-virus, antispy, Firewall and registry cleaners, and have never had any problems with these products.

Geoff Walker
December 9, 2006 1:50 PM

Leo, I think you have to look at WHY the software is free. I've come up with ten different reasons, as follows:

1. It's free because it's open source. This is the best case; the quality is usually good, there's usually a support community and the software is continuously improved. It's free because the authors believe that software should be free to everyone. A good example is the Thunderbird email client from mozilla dot com.

2. It's free because the author believes that the function is critically important to the world and is willing to offer and maintain the software for free as his way of doing something for the world. An example is Spybot Search & Destroy from spybot dot info. This is good software that's constantly improved. The author seems to live on donations. Another example might be CrapCleaner from ccleaner dot com.

3. It's free because it's a reduced-functionality version of a paid program. The company is using the free version as a marketing tool. An example is AVG anti-virus from grisoft dot com. It's a very good, very reliable, high-quality program -- as long as you can live with its limitations (e.g., the inability to schedule scans of your hard disk other than daily).

4. It's free because the author is a computer professional who makes his living in some aspect of the computer business and who writes tools to help him do his job. He knows the tools are too good not to share, but he doesn't want to be bothered managing a web store because it takes time away from his professional work. I think an example is SysInternals (Mark Russinovich) before Microsoft bought him. Another simple example is Screen Ruler from classicsys dot com. Generally this is very reliable software, since the author uses it himself while he's making his living.

5. It's free because it's a way of attracting people to the author's website, where the real money is made through services and ads. An example is Doctor TCP from broadbandreports dot com. This is very good, very simple software. Help is available in extensive FAQs on the website.

6. It's free because it's something that makes another program more valuable, but people aren't willing to pay for it and/or the company doesn't want to charge for it. An example is MindManager Viewer from mindjet dot com.

7. It's free because the author has done something really clever or unique and wants to show it off to other people. An example is WinDirStat from windirstat dot info. It uses a VERY clever graphic presentation, but in the real world a paid program such as FolderSizes from foldersizes dot com actually does the underlying task of disk management much easier, faster and better. The author probably cares more about his clever graphic presentation than about solving the problem of disk management. I think a lot of free software falls into this category. The quality varies, and support may or may not be available.

8. It's free because the author is addicted to computers and is constantly writing software, some of which he makes available for free because he's proud of what he's done. This software can be very good and very useful but there's usually no support. Two good examples are Startup Control Panel and CrossHair by Mike Lin (mlin dot net). These are great little programs that he wrote while he was a student, but he's got a full-time job now. Another example is the excellent Dimension 4 clock-synchronizer from thinkman dot com. There's definitely some terrific programs available in this category, but not everyone is capable of supporting themselves.

9. It's free because the author is just learning to program and he wants others to see what he's created. Generally this is junk software. I don't have a good example at the moment, but I know I've seen some software in this category.

10. It's free because it's some sort of scam, spyware or dishonest marketing. I don't have a good example at the moment, but I know that there is definitely some free software like this out there. If there's no information about the author on the website, that's often a "buyer beware" warning.

The bottom line is that there are a lot of reasons why some software is free, and the majority of them are legitimate. There really IS a free lunch in many situations. However, the quality, functionality and support of free software ranges from terrible to excellent -- just like with paid software! There's no reason to stay totally away from free software, and there's no reason to limit yourself exclusively to free software. Both should be evaluated, just like when you acquire any other product such as clothing, artwork, food or transportation. Your selection depends on your personal evaluation of the cost/value ratio and your assessment of the risks and benefits involved. That's life!

Aalok
December 10, 2006 12:31 AM

I think thunderbird is totally worth using.

Derek
December 11, 2006 7:31 PM

I agree Free software depends on quality and support, as an active linux user, I rely on primarily free software (the OS included) and without the support from forums and user groups would not have been able to get some of the software I have working properly.

David
December 15, 2006 3:28 AM

I love free software not just because of the fact its free but because there are so many decent programs out there that in some cases just far outperform paid solutions. For example I hate Dreamweaver and Frontpage but I love HTMLBox, PSPad and others.

Plus I find that some free software isn't just a ploy to get you to buy something a lot of them are just labours of love. For example the phenomenal Spybot - Search & Destroy originally written by a guy dedicating it to his girlfriend!! Another favourite of mine as a programmers is Context an excellent text editor written by Edin Kirin.

@Mary Snapfiles (formerly known as webattack) is an excellent site for freeware and shareware, I strongly recommend it. As with Cnet there are user opinions and rating alongside the staff opinions so you can at least gauge the quality of said software before downloading it.

Jack
December 16, 2006 3:28 PM

How can you tell if free software isn't a virus or spyware or malware or something?

Leo Notenboom
December 21, 2006 12:44 PM

Download only from trusted locations. Run an anti-virus scan on things before you install them.

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