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March 1, 2012

Commercial Software: Should You Or Should You Not?

A lot of people embrace free software. I do, too. Why pay for Photoshop, after all, when free alternatives like Inkscape and Gimp can do exactly what you need a photo editor for? However, there are many cases where paying for software actually makes more sense. And, much as I hate to admit it, my preference for using free alternatives have backfired on me a lot of times.

Free Software Is Irresistible

It’s the truth. You download it, install it and use it for whatever purpose you need. There’s no paying for anything, no nagging registration messages and no having second thoughts about whether you made the right purchase. If it doesn’t work as well as you hoped, you can just uninstall the whole thing. Your credit card balance stays the same. If you value your time, though, do note that finding good free software will often eat up a lot of it.

The Catch With Free Software

There are free software that are really, really good. However, there are also free software that are really, really bad. Most free software sit somewhere in the middle — good enough to get the job done, but seldom in the cleanest, most efficient manner.

Most of the free software out there can also do only a fraction of the things that commercial titles usually come with. As such, you’ll be limited in the things you can use them for. While you can end up discovering new ways of getting stuff done with feature-heavy software, you’re usually stuck with the standard ways of doing stuff with free titles.

Is Free Software Worth It?

I keep plenty of free software on my computer. They’re the free ones I downloaded that are good enough for the purposes I use them for. When a free title makes it difficult (or impossible) to do certain tasks I need, that’s when I look towards getting a retail application to substitute for it.

Mostly, I use free software because it’s free. I’m not rich and I use the computer a lot, so I’m not exactly in a position to spend money on every solution I need. If I did have the money, though, I’d opt for an off-the-shelf retail title every time.

Sometimes, Free Software Sucks

There are many instances when all free software I tried for a specific purpose just don’t work. Sometimes, they’re too lacking in the features I need; other times, they’re just so poorly done that it’s impossible to use it in an efficient fashion; and other times still, they just crash too often.

While some paid software out there will suck, most of them don’t. Big publishers normally do plenty of user testing before rolling out a product, so you know it’s been heavily checked for quality. Smaller publishers who sell software, on the other hand, usually offer trial copies, so you can see how well they serve your needs before purchasing.

Commercial Software Often Makes Setup Easy

Very few times have I bought a commercial software that I encountered obstacles with during install. Most of the time, the thing just works. Not quite the case with many freeware, which often require a lot of setup and settings tweaks before they can run in a stable and reliable manner.

If you have the time and patience to “hack” your way through it, free software can be very useful. However, if you value ease of setup and the lack of elaborate tinkering to get stuff to work more, commercial software should be your best bet.

Commercial Software and Tech Support

Do you like taking advantage of tech support? Well that doesn’t come with software you don’t pay for. Free software may be able to serve your needs well, but you’re on your own as soon as you encounter a problem with it.

The complete opposite holds true for paid software. Even small developer studios, like those with 3 or 4 employees, offer some semblance of support. While smaller companies will keep that support to either email or user forums, it’s still a huge advantage over being stuck having to deal with issue all by yourself. And let’s not even forget the phone support usually offered by larger publishers.

Suffice to say, commercial software often comes with professional-level support — something you will sorely miss when you use free and open-source applications. And, no, don’t even think about bugging them on their blog or filling their non-support email inbox with your problems — that’s not part of the deal with free programs.

Commercial Software and Updates

While some free software receive regular updates (especially open-source projects), that’s very often not the case. In fact, many free software will get updates as long as the developers stay interested. Once their time is taken over by other projects (particularly, ones that pay money), you can say goodbye to seeing any more updates in the future.

Not quite the case with commercial software, where patches and fixes are regularly supplied, along with added features. After all, they’re trying hard to keep you as customers, so they go out of their way to make sure you have the best experience with their product, regardless of whether it’s a Windows utility, an accounting package or just a fun entertainment program.

Commercial Software Often Just Works Better

If you want the optimum user experience, you’ll probably want to invest in a commercial software. This is especially true for larger applications, where the user testing budget of publishers who make good money just can’t be matched by any developers who do it out of pure passion.

Consider Microsoft Office, which has tons of freeware competition. While the free alternatives, such as Open Office and Libre Office, can all deal with the same file types and formats, Microsoft’s standard-bearer just continues to be easier to use. If you only occasionally use Word, Excel and Powerpoint, then going the free route might be a good idea. If you use them everyday, though, you’ll probably end up frustrated a lot of times with the free alternatives around.

Compared to their free counterparts, most commercial titles also come with more sophisticated features. You can see this in glaring detail in most every software category where you have a market-leading paid title and a slew of free options behind it. The former just makes getting things done a lot easier and, at the end of the day, that’s the very thing users are looking for.

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