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The Actual Cost of FREE Software

Don’t you love it when you determine that you need something – and then you find out that it’s free?  “Yes, we have that.  It’s included in your _________ – for free.”  Cue the happy dance.

The Cost of Free

More often than not, something that is “free” may actually come with a cost.  Does that “free” item need assembly?  Does that “free” item need other things to work  – batteries/tools/devices/etc.?

Free can be a really seductive – but misleading term.  And, I’ve fallen for it too.

It’s not that I’ve gotten cynical over the years (well, maybe a little).  But as a solutions provider, I know that there’s a lot more to a whole system than any one piece.  And, by extension, there is a lot more to the overall cost than the price of individual parts.

The Assets Perspective

When we talk about our mobilePLUS solution, our prospective clients typically fall into one of three types of existing situations.  They have systems in place that are:

  • A Manual Process – Their staff uses paper rosters to manually conduct inventories and then update their ERP or other Financial System via key entry.
  • Part of an ERP/Independent Asset Management Solution – They use a mobile option provided by the ERP or other system of record for the asset data.
  • A 3rd Party Solution – They have an existing non-ERP application (from another vendor or built themselves) to complete their inventories.

Many ERP and other solution providers offer a mobile option for their software at no charge.  At least “No Charge” for the actual license cost.

It seems like the Mobile Option offered has been included by providers out of necessity to fulfill a mobile inventory capability requirement to be considered a true asset management solution.  I’ve seen this requirement in nearly every RFP that we have seen over the past twenty years that includes asset management.

Free Does Not Equal Easy

Unfortunately, when something is “free” to acquire, it seems to set an expectation that it is easy to implement/use/support.  That’s not necessarily the case.  For upper management, once the license is acquired, it’s done.  However, for the IT team that needs to implement and support the license – and the organizational owners whose team uses the license – acquisition is just the beginning.  To make this “free” license work, they face a few (fairly solid) challenges:

First Challenge: Effort  Any software component needs to be configured, implemented, and transitioned to the user community.  This requires resources– either internal or external to your team (and the expense of their time) – to assist in completing these tasks.

Result = Investments required for using internal resource time (including delay of other assigned work) or for hiring external help.

Second Challenge: Focus  When there’s a “free” capability of a system, as opposed to a main one (like asset record detail, financial information, etc., in asset management solutions), that “free” functionality can carry less weight in the solution manufacturer’s eyes – and has usually garnered significantly less focus and resources.  Solution Experts, either internal or external to your organization, have likely spent less time here – and have less expertise in these particular capabilities.  As a result, there can be a lack of usability, documentation and timely support when it comes to that “free” component.

Result = Less focus on the function of the capability = less functionality, less expertise, less supporting information, and fewer resources.

Third Challenge: Support  Software markets continue to focus on “easy” or “automatic” approaches for implementation.  However, there frequently comes a point where being able to work with a real person becomes a true necessity to reduce risk and improve success.  Getting an actual person on the phone when you’re working with mobile asset inventory applications can be a challenge.

Result = You’re frequently on your own.

All of this is very important for that business manager who owns the task and quality of results of their asset management.  It also has a real dollar impact on the organization that can better manage this requirement.  (This post and this post dig into the financial perspectives.)

So when you hear that a software license is FREE, make sure that you understand what the true cost of this “free” capability is.  It may be a lot more than you – or your management – think.