The F-Word

May 10th, 2006

What is the difference between FREE, Free, and free? You’ll rarely see the lower-cased version in marketing, rarely see the all-caps one in prose, and the one in the middle is downright tricky.

There is such a plethora of meanings and implications associated with this common word, that it may be due the same awe-inspired analysis its naughtier, equally versatile 4-letter cousin often receives.

The Oxford English Dictionary lists several entries for the word, divided into a number of word types: adjective, noun, adverb, verb, and combining form. In total, over 40 definitions. Fortunately, for the purposes of this entry, we need only be concerned with the definitions that apply to software development and computers. Unfortunately, this arena is a microcosm that exhibits most if not all of persnickety meanings of the world at large.

As it pertains to software, a great deal of analysis and refinement has already been made. The Free Software Foundation (FSF; cheesy new logo, by the way) is probably most responsible for starting and continuing the debate at its most philosophical level. Richard Stallman wisely noted in his definition of free software that a clarification on the dictionary meaning of the word was important in setting the context for his organization’s purpose:

“Free software” is a matter of liberty, not price. To understand the concept, you should think of “free” as in “free speech,” not as in “free beer.”

This distinction and his metaphors in particular have become widely used by open source software developers when attempting to clarify the terms of their own particular licenses. But I find some fault in the analysis. Free speech really is free. Free software? I’m not so sure. With free speech, I can quote somebody like Richard Stallman in a public lecture, and get paid for it. But GNU’s free software comes with conditions. I can only speak freely (liberty) if I also do it freely (cost-wise). Seems like a weird compromise between free speech and free beer. I can drink as much of it as I want, but must use their toilets when it’s time to piss it out.

Still, the metaphors are important, because they help clarify a sort of top-level sorting decision when analyzing uses of the word. Before any further thinking is done, one should determine which meaning is intended. In some cases, such as with the FSF, it may be a tricky combination of both.

It has been pointed out that many languages have separate words for the two meanings. That’s convenient! In Spanish, for instance, free as in beer is simply “gratis.” No charge, amigo. Free as in speech is “libre.” When you consider that free as in speech is one of the more debatable concepts in any language, regardless of word choice, it’s no surprise the problem runs more than word-deep. “Freedom Isn’t Free,” and neither is understanding what the freeking hell that means.

Freedom of software is in fact just like political freedom. You can do anything you want, except for what your masters restrict you from doing. In the case of Free Software, as with citizenship, we have some measure of choice in the question of who makes our rules. But it’s frustrating and pride-injuring when you believe you have the right to something, and your government insists otherwise. These ironic caveats to political freedom are among the motivations for anarchistic thinking. Perhaps the closest concept to anarchy in software development is the public domain or similar “complete freedom” licenses. Free as in speech and free as in beer. Free as in kegger, dude!

The Marketing of Free

Free has long been used in marketing to mean a variety of things. The fact is, it almost never means either free as in speech or free as in beer. It usually is used as code for some other, more complex concept, which has been massaged into some form that can very narrowly be interpreted as “free as in beer.” The idea for marketers is to make the consumer think, even if only on a subconscious level, that they’ve been blessed with a piece of property for which they had to do no work. Free as in manna from heaven.

So what does it really mean? Usually it means “no extra charge.” That is, if you give us some money for one arbitrarily priced product, we’ll throw in a second, much cheaper to manufacture product absolutely FREE! An excellent example of this are the free toys included with Happy Meals (or is it the free food included with the toys?). Along the same lines are the free stickers or games included with breakfast cereal. No, it’s not free. If it were free I could open the box, take out the toys, and walk out of the store. It’s not illegal to steal free things, but it may certainly be a crime to steal FREE things.

No extra charge can often be tricky, because you don’t realize that you’ve already paid for something. Advertisement-funded products are like this. When you watch a television show or view a popular web site, you may in fact be paying for the content merely by being exposed to the ads. Passive payment is simultaneously reviled and beloved by consumers. Most people love to hate ads, but not enough to warrant spending ordinary cash on the product instead.

Almost as often, free means “free for a limited time.” This is the ploy of companies like Netflix when they offer potential customers a “Free 2 Week Membership.” The saving grace of this use of free is that you really can get something for no money. In exchange for the likelihood that you’ll become a paying customer, you can enjoy the full benefits of membership for 2 weeks without charge. This kind of free also passes the “stealing test.” You can steal the 2 weeks. That is, you can sign up for the trial absolutely committed to not become a member later. The main questionable aspect to this use of free is that it runs out after you take advantage of it. Even though there is a theoretically endless supply of two week trials (you can tell all your friends about it), you personally are entitled to only one of them. This is “free as in one cup of beer.”

The free trial concept is widely used in software, especially now that the Internet seems to have surpassed retail sales as the primary distribution method. What used to be called “shareware,” a try before you buy approach to commercial sales, is now commonly employed by marketers at all levels of the software continuum. The meaning of a free trial in software varies a great deal, but the practical mode of limiting a trial is by time used or feature omission, or some combination of the two.

Timed trials are usually fully operational copies of the software that are intended to expire after some number of uses or a passing of calendar time. This trial is often called a “fully functional demo,” to distinguish it from a demo that does not contain all the features of the full product. Timed trials are “free as in one cup of beer.” The product may solve all of your problems or may be completely useless to you. But in any case, you are entitled to only one free trial.

A feature omission trial usually offers some subset of the product’s functionality, and is designed to work forever in this state. Depending on the degree of missing functionality, consumers might classify it either “crippleware” or “a lite version.” The implication is that crippleware is practically useless, while a lite version is so useful in its limited scope that it may be considered a product in its own right.

Feature omission products pass both the “no cost” and “you can steal it” tests. If you are happy with the product as-is, then you come out a winner. These products are “free as in Pabst.” You might wish that you could have a cup of Full Sail or Newcastle, but for the price, you’re happy to keep refilling from the free keg. Marketers hope there aren’t many people like you, or else they’ll never sell any of the product. The idea is you’ll tell all your friends about the free Pabst, but when they show up they’ll pay for the choicer beers.

Whatever the flavor, a free trial is a trojan horse that gets brand and product familiarity into the mind of the consumer. The ultimate goal is usually not to give something away (that’s not what marketers are paid for), but to improve the odds of a for-cost product being purchased in the future.

A very consumer-friendly version of the feature omission trial is one in which only one or two of the most advanced features is omitted. In this scenario, the publisher hopes that the product will appeal to a wide audience, and that the utter usefulness of those last few niggling features will be enough to win a relatively high purchase rate. The excellent weblog Daring Fireball is a combination of such a highly featured trial, combined with a small amount of advertising-based payment. The site’s owner/author, John Gruber, is currently in the midst of a pledge drive of sorts, which alludes to yet another kind of free: “free as in please pay me.”

“Free as in please pay me” is best exemplified by public television and radio. It’s absolutely free, except they’d love it if you decided to pay for it. Ironic, isn’t it? This confounding concept is known in the software world as “donationware,” and is almost universally regarded as a good way to make zero money. Public broadcasters figured this out, which is why you see and hear about “thank you gifts” during almost every pledge break in the country. John Gruber also figured this out when we decided to start including (selling) T-Shirts at a certain membership rate. As he says, “People will happily pay for things they can actually hold in their hands, but you can’t touch ones and zeroes.”

The Edge of Freedom

Another type of free product has become very popular lately on the Internet in particular. The “business plan will emerge” variety of free products and services offer “free as in beer” goods with apparently no strings attached. In fact, the analogy to beer may finally be appropriate here. On some level, the providers of these mysteriously free products are hoping to get you addicted. Once you find yourself unable to make it through a day without them, you’ll be prepared to spend money or click ads, whatever it takes to avoid losing your fix. Because the nature of this freedom is very much about taking the consumer on a trip from the present “no cash” to the future “tons of cash” scenario, I’ll call this type of free software the “free ride” variety.

The goal of these companies and individuals is to obtain market saturation, and charging nothing is the surest way to achieve that goal. The business savvy of entities practicing this runs the gamut, and some of the people who make great examples may not even care that they managed to conquer an entire market. On a very macro view, the “free ride” can be looked at as a form of “free trial” or “lite version.” The difference is that the for-pay version of the product simply doesn’t exist yet. In this sense the makers and marketers of these types of products are playing a kind of futures investing game with the public, betting on free products becoming profitable through sheer popularity and omnipresence.

A good example of this on the Mac is the personal productivity utility, QuickSilver. It doesn’t matter that the product has never come out of “beta.” Almost every power-user you meet will have some familiarity with this program or may in fact be addicted to using it. What does this mean for the author? It means the entire Mac market is poised to pay for either a “for-cost 1.0 release” or a completely separate product possessing the now-valuable brand. The author has bought himself notoriety and recognition from the Macintosh public, by giving something away for free.

Open source projects are often “free ride” projects in their marketing to the public. While the user never loses the ability to use the product for free, the product itself becomes increasingly more valuable to the owners as its popularity increases. Take Firefox, for example:

The award-winning Web browser just got better. It’s free, and easy to use. Join the millions of people worldwide enjoying a better Web experience.

Why is a free browser marketing itself so aggressively? Partly, no doubt, as a test of success. It just feels good to make progress and have people use your product. But it was recently pointed out that Firefox must be making a fair amount of cash from their default Google search bar (it was speculated they made more than $70 million, but a Mozilla board member refuted that exact number). In any case, I think it’s fair to say that Firefox is making Mozilla money. From a user’s perspective, I think this is fine. If it helps development of Firefox to continue, I say more power to them!

Go Free Yourself!

From the developer point of view, there is a real dilemma raised by the free ride approach to open source. Because some open source projects are inherently valuable, sometimes even by their mere existence as a defensive measure, it’s in some (rich) companies’ interests to keep them well-funded. The distributed nature of open source projects means that your “coworker” on a given project may be making considerably more or less than you. While this is true in any job, there are no companies where the lowest paid contributor makes nothing, while the highest paid makes six figures. If I was working at such a company, I think I’d have a gripe with management!

It strikes me that the increasing involvement of commercial companies in open source projects may spell both their salvation and their doom. Human nature would seem to dictate that giving labor away for free is only fun until you find out that somebody else doing the same thing received a Mercedes and a house in exchange. Does the fact that highly paid engineers from heavy-hitters like Apple, Google, and Sun, are regular contributors to several major open source projects threaten the ability of those projects to recruit free labor from the public at large?

Perhaps an open source project will naturally lean towards being completely free-funded or completely salary-funded, based on its perceived value by the businesses of the day. At what point does making the decision to work on a project like Firefox mean deciding to search for an employer willing to pay you to do it? You want me to work on that for no pay? Go Free Yourself!

The Truth Will Set You Free

Unfortunately, this little writing excursion of mine has only scratched the surface on the meaning of free and how it pertains to software and our lives. This is an example of fairly unstructured, unresearched work that I’m presenting to you for free (free as in my speech). The fact that it’s also free (as in “free ride” – hopefully I’ll become part of your blogging addiction – and “please pay me“) means that I have certain editorial freedoms (this blog is “management-free!”). I choose to stop writing now. I’ve used enough of my “free time” as it is.

I hope you’ll consider carefully the meaning of free in the contexts where you encounter it. Customers should ask themselves, “How am I really paying for this?” Marketers and developers should ask themselves, “What do we hope to gain by giving this away? What does it mean that we’re giving this away?” And remember: There’s no such thing as a free lunch. Unless you work at Google.

Update: Wed May 10, 2006, 11:00PM EST.
Writing this entry and then re-reading it inspired me to revisit some GNU free software writings. I think my argument stated above that I couldn’t quote somebody and get paid for it, is flawed. The fact is that GNU requires certain conditions be met, and money is in most instances not relevant. You can sell the software for as much as you like, so long as you provide source code to substantiate the underlying “freeness” of it. I apologize the momentary ire this might have incited in any readers. I’m glad i caught it before anybody complained!

4 Responses to “The F-Word”

  1. Mike Oldham Says:

    Nice read.

  2. Patrick Correia Says:

    Even considering your update, I’d still like to comment on the “free” software issue. I hope this doesn’t come across as GNU fundamentalist dogma, because I intend only to add my two cents to what I think was a very well-considered and thought-provoking article.

    I think there’s an important distinction missing from your discussion of the GNU approach to free software. I would propose that “free as in speech” is a bad analogy for free software in the first place, since free as in “free speech” means “unencumbered” or “unrestricted”, where free as in “free software” means “liberated”. What’s “free” in the case of free software is the knowledge, the ideas represented by the source code; they’re free from being locked away forever in some binary format that doesn’t allow them to spread. The user of the software isn’t free — in fact, the user is largely what the software is gaining freedom from.

    Taken this way, the GNU approach seems to me to be entirely consistent with the meaning of “freedom”.

  3. Daniel Jalkut Says:

    Mike: Thanks! I really appreciate it.

    Patrick: I very much welcome your comments and I think they are eye-opening. I think the “liberated” angle is very interesting, because it clarifies that it’s the software itself that is free, not the owners or the users. I can definitely appreciate that idea.

    I’m sure I don’t completely understand it, yet. Just proof that Free is indeed darned tricky.

  4. JazzCrazed Says:

    Very interesting read.

    First, I’m glad that you added the update regarding cost, because it is completely irrelevant to the concept of free software. But I have a very nitpicky gripe about your update which you can ignore if you’d like; you obviously still can charge for the software you write even if you release it as binary-only – you just can’t release it under the GPL (whereas you’re suggesting that you have to give away your software for free if it isn’t open-source).

    Second, Patrick’s point is extremely important. You say in the fifth paragraph that you’re cornered by FSF conditions into “speaking” only in a certain fashion, but in truth the FSF is enabling you to be as free as you possibly can, by demanding open-sourced code. It’s obviously impossible to speak freely about software that is proprietary, since you have no access to the source code, and so the FSF with its GPL imposes this requirement. Outside of the cost reference, you seem to frame this as an obstacle to free expression, but actually it guarantees it.

    There’s other points I want to pursue, but I haven’t the time at the moment… Thanks for your interesting post!

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