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Can There Even Be Sustainable Free Software?

Most of us think that we have a pretty good idea of what the word “free” means. But when it comes to software, it seems that there are no rules. Software and services that are apparently free are often anything but, to the point where many people are wondering if free software is even sustainable.

Does Free Mean Free?

We all know that the best things in life are free, and many of us have experienced the frustration that is the cost of modern software and apps. We've all had that feeling of searching to see if an app exists, only to find that the only version on offer is a premium option that costs money.

If you are lucky, there might be a free alternative, but even these increasingly come with catches. Software development costs money. There may be some legitimate passion projects out there, but for the most part, software developers need to make their money back somehow. If you aren't paying the developer for the app or software, then they are almost certainly making money from it in another way.

There are a plethora of apps on both the Apple and Google app stores that claim to be free. But once you get inside, you quickly realize that there are costs involved. This isn't a problem unique to smartphone apps; we see this with desktop software as well.

Open Source Software

One of the few reliable ways of finding software that is genuinely 100-percent free is to search for open source software. Open source means that the developer doesn't just share the software itself – they also share the underlying source code. This allows anyone to come along, modify the source code, and release their own open source alternative.

Once you start looking, you might be surprised by the range of open source alternatives to common software packages. However, many open source projects ultimately fall apart because they are not maintained. Taking care of a software project costs money, and people are reluctant to support something they can get for free. While technically anyone can make contributions to open software, few actually choose to do so.

Things Aren’t Always as They Appear

There are many ways a purportedly free app might be making money from you. In some cases, these are perfectly legitimate. But recently there has been an increase in the number of apps that exist to either defraud the users or advertisers.

Free VPN and proxy services are nothing new. Many of us have memories of using these to circumvent the internet blocks put in place by schools. However, these free services are a terrible security risk and are almost certainly a scam designed to harvest your data. That’s why it’s important to know how to choose a reliable proxy provider.

Running a VPN or proxy server costs money and resources. If you are not paying for access to the server then the provider must be monetizing your access in a different way. Remember that VPNs and proxies only provide additional security and privacy if you trust the operator of the servers.

Another way that allegedly free apps have been caught making money for their developers is through advertising fraud. No one questions the presence of ads in a free app. However, fraudsters are able to have numerous adverts display and play out of frame where the user cannot see them.

Fraudsters get paid for every advert that is served up, while the user is none the wiser as to what is happening. This can quickly run up their mobile data and lead to unwanted costs. This is in addition to the myriad reports of apps and services not canceling subscriptions, charging after cancellation, or otherwise taking users’ money without telling them.

How to Support Free Software

Free software that is truly free is becoming increasingly difficult to find. However, there are some real gems out there today. Obviously, it is difficult for the creators of free software to justify spending the time and effort to create software that they will not be paid for. Fortunately, there are a number of things that you can do to support them and make it worth the developers' time.

Donations

Lots of free software will include a button somewhere that lets you donate to the developer. This is a good way of monetizing software, as it enables users to pay what they think the software is worth. Creators who have experimented with this kind of payment model have found it to be effective. While only a minority of people might make a donation, many developers find that once they reach a certain tipping point, it becomes self-sustaining.

Patreon

Another popular option for software developers today is a Patreon profile. Patreon is a website that enables patrons of content creators or developers to donate money to them. Content creators can then offer exclusive benefits to their Patreon subscribers. This may include exclusive content, features, or other perks.

Turn Your Ad-Blocker off on Their Website

A small but welcome gesture that you can make is to turn your adblocker off when you are visiting the developer's website. Most ad blockers enable you to set up a white list of websites that you trust and whose adverts you do not want to block. By doing so, you can potentially make your favorite developers a little bit of money that can fund further software development.

Personal and Commercial Licenses

A great way of striking the balance when it comes to software is for the developers to offer both a free personal license and a premium commercial license. This means that anyone can download the software and use it for free as long as they are using for personal needs. Meanwhile, anyone who wants to use the software to make money will need to pay for the appropriate commercial license.

If you value free and open source software, then we implore you to support its creators. Without them, none of the free things you enjoy would be possible. Or they wouldn't really be free.

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