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How free is “free”?

31 October 2011 23:04:52 +0000

As has been noted before, the Internet has spawned a generation of freeloaders. The lure of “free” is very difficult to resist, especially when other options out there cost as much as (gasp!) $4.95 a month. However, there is a cost to “free”.

To quote usability guru Jakob Nielsen, “users pay with attention instead of money” when they’re using “sponsored” (i.e., “free”) software. This applies especially to web-based free software, but now even some free software that you install on your computer actually comes embedded with advertising. Imagine! People who install this kind of software — called “adware” — on their computers are actually choosing to install advertising and the engine to drive it on their computers. Makes you shake your head when people who complain about being subjected to advertising against their will in other media actually choose, of their free will, to infect their computers with resource-consuming advertising.

But I digress.

The point is this: There is always a cost when it comes to “free” sponsored software, and this is explained very well (complete with costs added up) by Nielsen in his article The Real Costs of “Free” Search Site Services. Of course, we’re interested in this because some of these free services compete with us. Remember that we are accountable to you because you send us your hard-earned money; companies that provide their services for free have no reason to be accountable to you, because they’re not getting anything measurable from you. What they are getting is payment from their advertisers, and that’s who they’re accountable to.

Nielsen concludes his article with a note about non-commercial software, which he differentiates from “free” sponsored software. It’s a valid and noteworthy distinction.

Do you have questions about free software? Let me know!


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This is the corporate blog of NinerNet Communications. It's where we post announcements, inform and educate our clients, and discuss issues related to the Internet (web and email) hosting business and all it entails. This includes concomitant industries and activities such as domain registration, SSL/TLS certificates, online back-up, virtual private servers (VPS), cloud hosting, etc. Please visit our main website for more information about us.



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