Free Software

Free software. What does it mean? Does it have any costs? Is it possible to have software that really costs nothing? These are all questions that this post will address.

Citrix has its own class of free software that can be downloaded from its website. Most of this software is classified as being client software to talk to a Presentation Server. It is possible to download real products but there are a couple of catches. Most likely it is only available under a trial period and you must actually be registered to download these products. This implies that you will eventually pay for a real license to use it.

Free software is typically software that does not cost any money to download, install, and run. Free software typically excludes the concept of support but this is not always true. Open Source is a good example of a community that has the full intention of providing a product for free to the consumer, even with some support built-in. Shareware can be perceived as being free, but usually only for a limited time. So, it is important to realize that free software is only free until your time expires or you may need help fixing a bug.

Most free software has implicit dependencies. The Citrix ICA clients, for example, need the Presentation Server software to be worth anything. In other words, even though the clients are free, you have to pay for something else before it is useful. This is true with Microsoft as well. They have bundled a number of features into the operating system (like Internet Explorer) that are considered free but in reality it is impossible to have Internet Explorer exist without Windows. Translation: If Microsoft sells you Windows, then consider it a cost of Windows to get Internet Explorer. A number of years ago Microsoft (and others) realized the best way to gain acceptance was to make the products free. This worked great against Netscape Navigator in the mid 1990s and continues to be an acceptable business practice on the Internet to this day.

The Open Source angle on Free Software takes on some extra meanings. I’m not going to pretend to be an expert in this field at all. I’ll just say that it is necessary to disclose all modifications to Open Source code back to the community. In a way, Open Source is about open source code and software. The overall catch is that if you use it in your products, not only must you provide this source to your customers, but you must also provide it back to the Internet. There have been a number of start-ups based on Open Source code. It speeds things up quite a bit to be based on Linux and to modify and add only a fairly small subsystem to make your solution unique. These small companies see Open Source as a springboard to getting to market faster and not needing to duplicate the work done by the community at large. It’s a very powerful model to apply to business solutions. The catch with this angle comes back to having to be so open about your code base (how can you possibly stop a competitor from just doing what you did?) and the fact that Linux is not Windows. It seems that the unwritten aspect of Open Source is that many people use it but not as many give back.

Free software does have hidden costs. Obviously it is unlikely that you are going to get any kind of help if something goes wrong. You must also face the fact that maybe free software does have catches and limited functionality compared to that which you would normally pay for. As an individual user, most people are willing to take chances on free software at home. At the workplace, it is usually discouraged to download free software on work computers. There are costs even more severe than having to pay for support. Sometimes free software is actually spyware or other variants like viruses and Trojan horses. Some people I’ve talked with have fallen for the trap of some free software that sounded so good but only turned out to crash their system badly. It comes back to the saying, you get what you pay for.

So, by this point it is pretty obvious that there is no such thing as free software unless you really restrict your definition to the act of paying for it up front.

I apologize for this being a fairly boring and obvious topic that has been retold a thousand times. I am about to start saying some stuff that is new. Perhaps I should have started with this first!

Internally, free software producers can fall into traps as well. Here’s the line of thought within the management chain: “If I have Product X and Product Y, and Product X is free but Product Y costs money, then I’m going to focus on improving Product Y because it is going to make me more money.” I would classify this as the unchained thinking model. Now, let me give you the alternate model to think about: “If I see Product X and Product Y, and many customers download Product X and eventually buy Product Y, then I should improve both Product X and Product Y together”. This is called the chained improvement model. It is the realization that your free software leads to sales for your non-free software based on the relationships of the products. A great example of this is Adobe Acrobat Reader and Adobe Acrobat. Most people have copies of Adobe Acrobat Reader and see the value have having pure Acrobat. Adobe has not stopped updated the reader even though they don’t directly make any money from it. Obviously they understand.

It seems that Microsoft is more in the first line of thinking. Internet Explorer is the perfect example of this. IE is never updated drastically based on the pressure of selling Windows. It is updated mostly as a reflection of what competition is doing. The whole Firefox thing forced them to revamp IE to 7.0. Before that, it hadn’t had any overhaul for years. Probably the biggest pressure in general comes from security breaks. Obviously you have to react to that.

What I would advocate here is that free software is going to become more and more common. It is not a threat to business for a number of reasons. First of all, most corporate customers are not going to want to spend zero dollars on their software. They know that good software usually costs money. I’m not saying that expensive software is necessarily better but I do think that corporate buyers are willing to pay more money to make sure things run well. Secondly, no one can survive with no income coming in. Usually free software providers have found other ways to make money. Google is a good example of this since they provide a full search ability that is complete free. They have found money in the business of advertising and context information about users.

To answer the question “Is it possible to have free software?” I would answer no. There might be no initial financial cost but as soon as someone starts to use it the clock is ticking. The first time a user asks for help internally or externally, the money is being spent. Some thing that is free is bound to need training at some level. So, the answer is still no.

Internally, Citrix hasn’t put as high a value on the client as the server pieces. This logic dates back to the origins of the company. I’m hoping that someday someone will realize that we need to focus more on the clients than what we currently do. Even though we don’t make money directly from it, we need to continue to improve the experience from the client software since it is the gateway to the server software. That is where I wanted to end up. Thanks for reading.

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Posted in Favourite, Observations
2 comments on “Free Software
  1. James Kahn says:

    Very insightful Jeff. Thanks for the great read.

  2. jeffreymuir says:

    Thanks James. It’s great to get feedback.

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