• Published: Tuesday, Feb. 23, 2021

Free isn't always free. Most of us have had this experience. There always seems to be a catch or an asterisk or "see limitations and exclusions below." How about when it comes to software and apps? 

Social media is a big one in this category. If you are a user of Facebook, Twitter, Instagram or other online platforms, you find your pages littered with advertising. Your use of the site is free but you subject yourself to marketing and tracking. The same situation exists with apps you download. As you use the app, an ad might suddenly pop up on the display, and you need to close it to continue. Some of these are relentless. And annoying!

Years ago, an anti-virus vendor made its software available to K-12 schools at no cost. After several years, they decided to go back to charging for the software, forcing districts to either pay for the resource or research alternatives. Either option causing a disruption of service and budget concerns. 

Vendors may offer a free version of their products, often with a lighter design, without all the features a paid version may offer. But that can be retracted at any time, again, leaving the user the choice of paying for the product, substituting another or completely abandoning it. 

Make sure to keep up on the terms of service with products you use. Most vendors will make you aware of any changes they make, and you should review their changes. It is possible that items may be changed, added or eliminated. There might be charges incurred for use of particular features.

Have you seen the phrase "free download"? That is exactly what it means; you may download the program for free, but then you have a trial period to give it a test drive before purchasing. Does the product want you to enter payment information before using it? That might mean that it will automatically begin to charge you after the trial period expires.

What if the company sells its product to another company? Terms of service will likely change. You may want to also consider how this affects any data that is shared or stored with the company.

Bottom line: read the fine print and know what you are getting into. If the product is free, keep in mind that it might not always be. At any time that software could turn into fee-based usage. Understanding the caveats of free will help you avoid problems and plan for future acquisitions.