Getting Your Money’s Worth: Web 2.0, Infinite ROI, and the Problem of Free Software

I was sitting in the lobby at a client site waiting for our meeting to begin, when my compulsive need to check email yielded a frightening result: my client had just emailed me to ask if I was still coming to the meeting? There I was, $500 in expenses and a day spent traveling, and there was a chance that this meeting was about to NOT happen.

What had happened was simple: my client, in an attempt to deploy some Web 2.0-ish collaboration tools, had mandated Google Calendar for use in scheduling meetings. And his assistant, dutifully obeying orders, had put the meeting into Google Calendar and sent me a link that would guide me through the acknowledgement process.

And so, two weeks in advance of our meeting, I set out to acknowledge the invite. Google Calendar dutifully opened a website and I set to work. Two failed attempts to acknowledge later, I emailed the assistant directly and confirmed my attendance. She emailed back, insisting that the Calendar was working correctly – and that I should keep trying. I asked a colleague, who was also attending the meeting, if he had been able to respond. No such luck either. We both sent email acknowledgements and assumed that was enough.

It almost wasn’t. Luckily, my client trusted that I wouldn’t forget a meeting this important, and showed up anyway. But it was a close call.

To give Google the benefit of the doubt it deserves, Google Calendar is beta software, and, obviously behaves as such. Why my client was using beta software for such an important task (not my meeting per se – this company has decided to standardize on Google Calendar for all its meetings) is a good question, for which there is one simple answer: The model for much of the social web is free, and almost unavoidably so, and my client was merely living the Web 2.0 dream of turning on the free functionality and watching…. a hopefully efficient and effective set of processes emerge. Nice try.

I think the best thing you can say about the free social software model is that you will always get exactly what you pay for when using free Web 2.0 software. In this sense, the ROI looks almost incalculably high: Paying nothing (or nearly nothing, particularly relative to the high price of enterprise software) and getting something of value is truly the best thing that has happened to software since the open source movement. Who doesn’t dream of infinite ROI? Even the smarmiest vendor on the planet wouldn’t mind being able to claim something substantially higher than a 100 percent return on their customers’ investment.

Of course, there’s the sticky little problem of what happens when free software bites back: in addition to being out $500 and a day’s travel, there was the genuine risk that I would have lost some future business with this client, and, well, I’d also like to think that the client would have been bereft of the valuable services I was prepared to render had Google Calendar’s beta glitch succeeded in scuppering the meeting entirely.

Indeed, this is one of the problems with free software, and one of the problems of basing so much of the future of Web 2.0 (which in turn claims to be the future of enterprise software) on a free software model. Among many other problems (here’s a recent rant of mine on the subject), free implies a level of service and support – and functionality – that is simply not up to enterprise software standards. This article from the New York Times makes Gmail’s support regime look like a cross between a Kafkaesque nightmare and a Joseph Heller comedy.

There are lots of other examples of getting what you pay for: I recently went on Facebook to actually try to conduct some business (as opposed to the unrepentant socializing I normally use Facebook for.) That happened to be one of the moments Facebook was performing like one of the kids it was originally intended to server: balky, recalcitrant, and, in the end, largely useless for the function I was trying to get it to perform. I’ve seen Gmail do some similarly amazing things, not-ready-for-primetime things, including resetting my password randomly and being plain unavailable at the very moment I need it the most.

In the end we all need to take a deep breath and think hard about whether “free” and “enterprise class” have any business being used in the same sentence. The promise of infinite ROI must be tempered with the potential cost of failure and down time. I know I can’t afford to lose business due to a free software glitch, and, conversely, I know I’m willing and able to pay to make sure my business runs as smoothly and efficiently as possible. Especially when it comes to spending what is, even for my business, the relatively small amount needed to buy the goods and services needed to keep thing humming smoothly.

Is there room at the top of the price heap for improvement? You betcha: a lot of enterprise software is outrageously priced, even before you count the annual maintenance cost. But free, despite appearances, has its own costs too. And I think we should all think first before assuming free is as free as it looks. There’s no such thing as a free lunch, and there’s no such thing as free software either.

3 thoughts on “Getting Your Money’s Worth: Web 2.0, Infinite ROI, and the Problem of Free Software

  1. “You get what you pay for”. Sure. Except when you don’t. How much do you pay for your
    Microsoft Windows software ? Your Office software ? Your MS Outlook ? More importantly,
    what “guarantees” has that bought you ? You are rightly incensed by the outages you
    experienced on Facebook and Google. But have you kept track of the outages forced
    upon you by a recalcitrant MS Exchange server ? Or random blue screens of death ?

    I’m assuming you are not an Apple user, because your blog says “enterprise matters”.
    For all its other goodness, I think we can all agree that Apple is not designed for or
    widely prevalent in enterprise situations.

  2. Good comments: there are no guarantees that MSFT software will work flawlessly either, but that understanding is implicit in most user’s use of MSFT products: our expectations are, or should be, realistic about how well these product perform. The point of my post is that we shouldn’t be lulled into thinking anything has changed when it comes to free software. Indeed, it’s gotten worse.


  3. Hey Josh, just subscribed to your new feed and deleted the other. I’m looking forward to reading the new blog.

    As an aside to NK’s comments. I work in the enterprise and I use a MBP and while it may not be widely prevalent — its design, has no drawbacks in the enterprise.

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