There have been several incidents in recent memory in which a service provider has stopped providing a free service or stopped providing service altogether. Most recently, the developers of TrueCrypt, a disk encryption product, announced that they were stopping all development and support of their product. They went so far as to alert users that the product should not be considered secure, though that may be sole on the basis of having no further updates. Google Reader went away, but Google gave its users plenty of advance notice of the fact. Even so, many of us were still scrambling to find a replacement we liked. (What was Google Reader? Find out here.) Business users of the free version of Google Docs were caught a bit off-guard when Google announced that it was ending free access for corporate customers. and users of LogMeIn’s free service were surprised and upset when the free service ended. LogMeIn users were offered the “pro” version (aka “paid” version) at a 50% discount, bringing the price from $99/year to $49/year for the first year. Depending on use, that’s either a great price and well worth it, or highway robbery and not worth it at all. Anyone who uses it to make money should have been using the pro version anyway. There were comments in this Computerworld article that indicated that many people used it very casually, maybe a few times a year, and they weren’t planning on moving to the pro version.
A business must make a profit, and all products and services offered “free” are actually being subsidized by that company’s fee-supported offerings. There is a tipping point at which the cost to provide the free service to an ever-increasing number of users is no longer feasible, if the revenue from the paid services cannot support it. And surely, every company that offers a free service knows that there are many instances of its free services being used for commercial gain by people who morally ought to be using the paid version. Let me be clear: If you are using a consumer version of a free product to make money, you need to find out if you really ought to be using the commercial version. You probably should. Every company is different, but most free versions of software are available free only for personal, non-commercial use. Yes, you are responsible for reading the license agreement when you load the software.
While I agree that the notice given to LogMeIn’s users was really short, did the users of a free product have much right to complain? Well, the answer to that question is, it kind of depends.
You must understand what I said above about how a company can offer “free” products and services. I use Evernote, the free version, and in the near future I’ll need the fuller features available in the Pro version. Twitter, of course, is free to use, as is Facebook, because the revenue models of those two companies rely on you being the product, not the customer. You kind of accept the fact that you aren’t getting full-featured versions, you aren’t getting a lot of support, you really aren’t getting much of anything that you’d expect if you were paying for support or features.
If you are using a free version of anything, consider looking for alternatives to turn to in case your primary solution decides to pull the plug. Most of the time the provider will give you time to make the transition, and often they will list many alternatives. Someone you know can help you out.
What free services do you use? What would you do if one or more were suddenly unavailable?
Here’s a list of stuff I use free, and the rating of how upset I’d be if it went away. Three stars is EXTREMELY upset, 1 star is just a little annoyed.
Adium (instant messenger, can accommodate multiple IM accounts) 1
Amazon Cloud Player 1
Audacity (audio recorder and editor) 3
Cyberduck (ftp client) 1
FileZilla (ftp client) 2
Gimp (graphic image editor) 3
Microsoft OneNote 2
Skitch (screen capture) 3
BazQux (my RSS reader) 3
HootSuite (schedules my social media posts) 3
Buffer (does the same thing as HootSuite but free version has too many limitations) 1
Pocket (saves web pages to read later) 3
For most of the 3’s, I have already investigated workarounds, and for some of them I’d be willing to go to a paid version, Evernote and HootSuite among them. I’m glad for the options I have that don’t cost me anything, but there is a cost to someone for everything.