They say the best things in life are free, but pretty much everything is free on the internet if you shop around.
It’s amazing how quickly people take free stuff for granted. Their sense of entitlement seems to know no bounds and they’re incredibly demanding when it comes to quality and reliability, even from services supposedly still in beta testing. There was a time when the “beta” tag meant “proceed at your own risk”, but these days people interpret beta to mean “come on in, the water’s fine”.
People are also quick to scream blue murder when free services are taken away, or when they convert to a paid model. Google is a classic example, having consolidated its offerings over the last few years. You now need to pay to use Google Apps for Business, while the free Google
Reader for RSS feeds is set to be scrapped completely. Both moves saw howls of complaints from people who felt wronged because Google was taking away something these people never paid for in the first place.
In the internet age it’s tempting to build your entire business on free services such as online Office suites, email, calendars and internet telephony. Along with these you’ll find free enterprise resource planning tools along with free project, customer and content management systems.
Many businesses are also becoming highly reliant on free social media and monitoring services.
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Using free services might be great for your bottom line but, if any of these are mission critical in your organisation, you need to consider whether “free” is an acceptable risk. Remember, free generally means “all care, no responsibility”. If your business is going to rely on a service, then you need to think about an SLA. For paid services, SLA stands for “Service Level Agreement”.
For free services, it can stand for “Service Level Ambivalence”. You’re not a paying customer, so nobody is obligated to listen to your complaints if you’re left in the lurch.
The level of customer support is another key differentiator between free and paid services. Free services tend to offer online-only support, if any support at all. You might get help from other users in a forum, but relying on the kindness of strangers can also leave you in the lurch. Paid services often let you pick up the phone and get priority service.
The risks associated with “free” also apply to open source software, which is really free as in “free speech” but is usually also free as in “free beer”. If you’re going to rely on open source software and you don’t have the in-house expertise to support it, you really should consider paying for a support and maintenance contract with an open source specialist. Otherwise, when disaster strikes, you could again be left trawling the forums for answers.
Getting back to Google Apps for Business, the paid service now comes with 24/7 phone support and a 99.9% uptime guarantee. That’s what you’re really paying for, considering Google was happy to give away the basic service. If your customers expect you to be reliable, your service providers also need to be reliable.
Keep in mind that 99.9% uptime still allows for 45 minutes of downtime each month – 45 minutes which your business (and your customers) might not have to spare. Obtaining extra nines tends to be expensive. The highly-revered 99.999% uptime, better known as “five nines”, allows for 26 seconds of downtime each month. If you need five nines, you’re going to pay top dollar for it and free probably just won’t cut it.
If you’re currently relying on a freemium service with paid options, it’s worth reading the fine print to see what the SLAs and support conditions are for the free and paid plans. If it won’t break the bank, consider paying for the service – think of it as a way to support the provider and reduce the likelihood of them pulling the plug.
If your business is your livelihood rather than a hobby, take care if you’re building it on the back of someone else’s hobby.
David Hancock is the founder and managing director of national on-site computer repair and support company, Geeks2U. Founded in 2005 and with a team now over 300 strong, Geeks2U is one of the biggest Australian businesses of its kind.