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The problem with free software

The problem with free software

with Steven Chan — CTO, ArcLab & Co-founder, Tinkertanker

The best things in life are free: Parents’ love. Sunshine. WhatsApp (wait; whatsapp?!?)

What’s up, WhatsApp? User data, that’s what | Photo by Rachit Tank on Unsplash

We’re wired to love a bargain. Indeed, why pay when you can get stuff for free?

The desire for FREE is especially true for software, exacerbated by the explosive rise of the smartphone. As consumers, many of us have never explicitly paid for our apps (aka software), with the majority *free* to download and use.

For staying in touch, >2 billion of us use WhatsApp, while >1.2 billion use WeChat. After the recent privacy concerns from WhatsApp’s T&C change, a rising number are installing Telegram and Signal. All of them are *free*. Much has already been written, so I won’t add any more to the debate (For our corporate readers who are still using WhatsApp for company-wide comms, read this blog post by Andy Schmidt of 6i Communications).

What I leant well from a previous Portfolio Management career is that there’s no such thing as a *free* lunch. You always need to give something to get something.

No only WhatsApp, but many software applications are *free* because they monetise our data; e.g. we don’t pay to search Google online either, because the data we give up (our search data, location, demographics etc.) is sold to advertisers who pay Google to serve us ads to publicise their product.

So this is not a new phenomenon, but many of us probably don’t value our privacy enough, or we view it as an acceptable trade-off; e.g. getting served an ad for the best coffee in your vicinity may not be a bad thing. But at the end of the day:

If you’re not paying for the product, you’re the product.


ArcLab is a mobile learning Software-as-a-Service platform. So yes, we are in the B2B software business, and the practice of *Free* software troubles us.

The expectation of *Free* pretty much only extends to software. When purchasing furniture for the office, companies would never ask to have the tables and chairs for free. No landlord would be expected to provide office space for free. No F&B operator would ever be asked to cook and deliver meals to the office for free. Only software (read this excellent exposition from AngelCentral’s Huang Shao-Ning).

Selling software in a world of *free* is challenging. Because of *free* consumer software (which is not actually free, as we read above), when we introduce ArcLab to prospective customers, we’re sometimes asked to offer our platform for free, with no commitment to purchase.

This is obviously difficult, not to mention unfair, as our team which works hard to build and distribute a great workplace learning platform also need to bring money home to their families. Yet ArcLab’s cost incurred is not the main issue, since that’s in all honesty not a factor in buyers’ considerations.

However, what SHOULD be in buyers’ considerations — is the fact that good software like ArcLab Pro offers value to the organisation, which shouldn’t be for free. Using ArcLab Pro saves the company time, effort and cost in upskilling and supporting staff — to achieve more for your firm. Win-win.

And because ArcLab get compensated for the software we build to solve customers’ pain, we have the necessary funds to reinvest into making our SaaS platform better, and unlike other firms have no need to sell ArcLab Pro customers’ valuable data to advertisers. Neither do we sell the learning content that you create (though you can publish it to the world if you want — YOUR choice, not ours).

Finally, free software disappears when the developer runs out of money, leaving the user in the lurch. So companies should be VERY UNCOMFORTABLE with using free software. Paid software sticks around as the seller is building a sustainable business, and is committed to you.

That’s what ArcLab does. Building a sustainable business, and committed to helping organisations like yours upskill and support your workforce effectively and efficiently —SO THEY CAN ACHIEVE MORE FOR YOUR FIRM. Because great organisations can only be built by great teams.

That, is worth paying for.


Talk to us today to learn how ArcLab Pro helps your organisation to digitally upskill and provide performance support to your staff. Not free, but very affordable user-based pricing, with no upfront implementation costs. And we don’t sell customer data.

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