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Howard Marks
Howard Marks
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Free Software: A Privilege, Not A Right

Free online services can be great, but companies that operate on the freemium model aren't obligated to keep offering free software.

In the past few weeks, three Internet services I used announced that they would no longer offer free plans. Two of these -- SugarSync and LogMeIn -- have become integral to my workflow. While these changes didn’t disrupt my life as much as when RIM killed Tungle, the coincidence of these announcements got me thinking about Internet services and the whole freemium model.

We as users love free software, but what do companies that operate on the freemium model really owe us? Free software is a nice perk, but it's not an inalienable right as some users seem to think. Nonetheless, SugarSync and LogMeIn could have handled their transition to a paid model better.

When SugarSync announced on Dec. 10 that it was killing off its free plan, I didn’t give it much thought. I long ago outgrew SugarSync’s 5GB free account and started paying for the sync and share service I’ve integrated more deeply than most, even syncing the custom dictionary for Microsoft Office across the five computers I could be using on any given day. I got some grumbles from family members and our underpaid interns that they couldn’t get a free account when I shared files with them, but I’m used to such grumbles.

Of course, there are still many free storage services on the Internet, from Google Drive and Microsoft’s OneDrive (which was renamed after Britain's BSkyB sued over ownership of the sky) to Dropbox and SpiderOak. If you need a gigabyte or two of space, switching from SugarSync is probably your best bet.

More shocking was when I used LogMeIn to connect to my home-office desktop to close a file I had left open. I was presented with this message:

"Soon LogMeIn Free will no longer be available. To continue using remote access, you’ll need to purchase an account subscription of LogMeIn Pro. As a loyal user, you’re entitled to discounted introductory pricing, with packages starting at $49/year for two computers...Please note: If you do not take action, the Free computers highlighted in your account will become inaccessible on 2/3/2014."

When I was a consultant, I recommended that many of my clients install one of LogMeIn’s paid services to make it easy for them to access their office systems remotely and for me to log in and troubleshoot. Sure, we could have used a VPN and either Microsoft Remote Desktop Protocol (RDP) or VNC to do essentially the same thing, but VPNs are tricky and more than once I’ve saved a trip by using LogMeIn to connect to a PC inside the firewall so I could fix a firewall or VPN issue.

[Read why the idea that disk drives haven't gotten faster than 15K RPM because it would mean disks would have to become supersonic isn't true in "The Myth Of The Supersonic Disk Drive."]

LogMeIn, and GoToMyPC for that matter, are different from standard remote control software in that the PC being controlled makes an outbound connection on port 80 to the service provider. The remote user connects to the service provider’s server, which acts as a connection broker and connects the outbound sessions from both the user and PC together. That means no special firewall rules or VPN are needed and it works from places like airports, where VPNs and RDP don’t.

For access to my own desktops, I’ve used the free version, so I’m going to have to find an alternative or pony up the $49 a year for LogMeIn.

What I've found astounding as LogMeIn and other services drop the freemium model is the sense of entitlement people have displayed. Comments such as “I really liked SugarSync, but I don’t believe in paying for cloud storage” abound. Even worse, people think the mere fact that they used a free service means they’ve done something important for the service provider, making comments such as: “I (and expect many others in this community) have supported LogMeIn for years, it is LogMeIn that has stopped supporting us and we hope you (LogMeIn) reconsider this move, although by now the damage is already done.”

Well folks, running these services costs money and the companies that run them gave those valuable services away. They don’t have any obligation, moral or legal, to continue giving away their services for free. That said, I don’t think either company managed the transition as well as they could.

They both basically said, "We’re switching from freemium to premium and killing off the free version." A better move would have been to switch from free and premium to standard and premium, adding a new tier somewhere below their lowest paid tier. SugarSync’s smallest paid plan is now $7.49 per month for 60GB of space; the free plan provided 5GB. Introducing a new 10GB $25 per year plan with three months free for users that were using the free version would have made the transition more palatable.

But without those options, I and many others are once again looking for new solutions. I guess that's part of living in the Internet age. Obviously, this whole matter proves that Robert Heinlein was right when he popularized the term TANSTAAFL (there ain’t no such thing as a free lunch).

Note to grammar police: Please do not comment on the use of the word ain’t. If it’s good enough for Heinlein and Twain, it’s good enough for me.

[Find out your options for using server-side flash instead of traditional arrays in Howard Marks' session "Using Flash On The Server Side"at Interop Las Vegas March 31-April 4. Register today!]

Howard Marks is founder and chief scientist at Deepstorage LLC, a storage consultancy and independent test lab based in Santa Fe, N.M. and concentrating on storage and data center networking. In more than 25 years of consulting, Marks has designed and implemented storage ... View Full Bio
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