jrjBlog

Using Free Software: Understand the Incentives

If you're not the customer you're the product, and with security software business models matter...

A friend asked for a recommendation for a free anti-virus tool… I generally recommend Microsoft’s “Security Essentials” or Windows Defender (depending on the version) for Windows users, and nothing for Mac users (yet.) However, I provided a bit of context on free software that I thought others might find to be of interest:

My standard schpeal on free software applies even more than usual when considering security software: You need to understand how he company is making money. As they say, “If you’re not the customer (i.e. you aren’t giving them money in exchange for a product or service) you are typically the product.”

Most free software tools are either feature limited (trying to get you to upgrade to the full version) or ad supported (which incents them to track your usage patterns to better serve advertisers.) Understanding the business model is almost as important to the quality and features of the software itself, as it is the best predictor of the likelyhood that the vendor will start doing things you don’t like down the line. (Sharing your personal information, either in anonomized aggregate or full personal information in a mailing list, tracking usage to better target ads, or start denying key features to non-paying customers and nagging you to upgrade.)

Microsoft’s intent for having a free AV product makes sense to me– it adds value (or prevents the subtraction of value through malware) to a product that makes money (Windows.) The other guys I would need to understand how they are making money before I could comfortably recomment their products.

Of course, the exception is open source software, where the contributors often build and contribute to the software out of a combination of altruism and scratching their own itch. I’m not ignoring the merit of free and open source software, but rather “free” (as in beer) commercial software.