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Low-Cost Software - Bargain or Lemon?

Lori Halley 22 January 2008 4 comments

Freeware, shareware, open-source software, trial versions, previous versions of newly upgraded software, free web applications, and other low-cost software options can go a long way to ease a tight budget. But will that affordable software prove to be a bargain for your organization in the long run?

We've all heard the horror stories of virus-laden downloads and system crashes as a result of unstable software.  Less dramatically, however, there can be other costs in terms of staff time spent in customizing software that's not quite what your organization needs.  Open-source or low-cost software may be less familiar to staff and volunteers than the industry leaders in a given software category, and documentation or support may be limited. What is the potential cost of the software in terms of the time required for training and implementation? Is maintenance of the software likely be a drain on technical resources that are needed on other tasks?
Michelle Murrain, writing for Idealware at TechSoup, advises nonprofits to evaluate the true costs of lower-cost software -- not just the purchase price of an application, but all of the costs associated with using it, and provides a checklist of questions to help you pick a bargain. 

As with any purchase, then, do start with a needs assessment.

What are the  essential features your organization will need right now, and what do you anticipate needing in the future?  Draw up a "wish list" and prioritize the features you're looking for, marking those that are critical and cannot be compromised. A clear view of what your organization requires the software to accomplish  -- both now and in the longer term -- will help to narrow down the numbers for a detailed side-by-side comparison of features. 

Will the application be central to your organization's mission, or just a useful utility?  For how long will the organization use it?  To accomplish a small specific task -- converting files to another format , perhaps --  there are many safe and functional free tools among which to choose.  Where "good enough" really will do the job, a search for the perfect utility may not be the best investment of staff time.  If you are considering a mission-critical application that will be with you for the long haul, however, as Michelle Murrain points out, you should hold it to a much higher standard.

Consider the source of the software.

Who is providing the software, and why is it so affordable?  If there is any risk that an application may carry adware or spyware with it, cross it off the list.  Low-cost versions of commercial applications that serve as an introduction to full-featured full-price versions, are widely used for good reason. Free open-source software, created through the collaboration of knowledgable volunteers, is often a strong competitor for similar commercial products. Be aware, however, that documentation for open-source applications may be limited, and the level of support depends on the vigor of the volunteer community around that software project.

Check the reputation of the software itself.

Ask around with other individuals and organizations, to see who else is using the software and what their experience has been.  Have a look at the documentation online, checking for a detailed FAQ and troubleshooting information. Is there a history of regular upgrades and added features? Even lower-cost software needs to evolve, to meet the challenges of  ever-changing security issues and evolving technology standards. 

Ideally, the software provider will offer a dedicated support forum where staff representatives are actively involved and responsive to customer concerns. Transparency is key. Can the forum be viewed by the public? Are pre-purchase questions welcomed and answered?

Software selection can be a daunting task, indeed, with many considerations to weigh in the balance. On that subject, a whitepaper produced by Wild Apricot team covers the ten basic factors in making the right choices to fit your needs and budget:

  • Integrated System vs. Individual Solutions
  • Ease of Use
  • Installation and Setup
  • Remote Access
  • Maintenance and Software Updates
  • Comparing Costs
  • Security and Reliability
  • Support
  • Affordability
  • Test-driving before buying

Whether you choose free, low-cost, or full-priced software for your organization, Wild Apricot's Ten Key Essentials to Selecting Software can help guide you to a solution that will give you a good return on your investment of time and money.

Lori Halley [Engaging Apricot] Lori Halley [Engaging Apricot]

Posted by Lori Halley [Engaging Apricot]

Published Tuesday, 22 January 2008 at 3:13 PM


  • Casey said:

    Wednesday, 23 January 2008 at 9:33 AM

    You raise several very good points. "Free" software is often not free. However, the benefit of using open source software is that it can be customized to your needs. You spend your budget on programmers to personalize the open source software rather than money on the software itself. While more difficult up front, open source software may in fact be the better solution in the long run.

  • Mitchell Allen said:

    Thursday, 24 January 2008 at 6:36 AM

    Hi Rebecca!

    You have covered a lot of ground, here.

    One aspect that we need to bring attention to is automation.

    If you are lucky enough to have a talented programmer on staff (or the budget can keep one on retainer), turn her loose on the daily functions that chew up valuable time.

    The reason I prefer a staffer is that you won't have to teach an outsider your routine.

    I've done automation at every job I've had and the time freed up helped bring focus to more important issues.

    Say, f'rinstance, learning how to use that nifty open source software!



    "It ain't the horse what wins the race, 'tis the jockey."

  • Lori Halley [Engaging Apricot] Lori Halley [Engaging Apricot]

    Lori Halley [Engaging Apricot] said:

    Friday, 25 January 2008 at 11:41 AM

    @Casey, it's a question of balance, isn't it? If there's a low-cost or open-source option that can be adapted to meet your needs more closely than a commercial solution, yes, that may very well be a better value.

    @Mitch, thanks for mentioning the automation factor: after all, the transfer of repetitive/labour-intensive tasks from human to machine is the foundation of technology!

  • Brian Levy said:

    Monday, 18 February 2008 at 8:04 AM

    There is some really good low cost and free software out there to meet needs.  The key is to define your needs and than determine what software meets it.  Sometimes something off the shelf will meet 90% of your needs and then you need to determine if the remaining 10% can be modified or if the software just will not meet the needs and if not can it be modified.  Also, data integration and transportability between software requires much research as isolated multiple databases are a big cost factor.  Our organization had 13 of them when it was first reviewed and discovered.  We have reduced it to 2 official databases. We reduced 3 persons in terms of time in doing this thus reducing payroll, space and overhead.  The key is defining needs and planing for both current and future needs.

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