Paying for Free Software

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There is a lot of free software available for every operating system. Some of it is open source, some of it is proprietary, but still free. Some of the free stuff comes with strings attached (shareware, for example). Some of the programs are amazing, many are just toys (or worse).

One relatively common theme in free software (at least on the Windows platform) is to give a relatively complete free version, but offer an upsell to a Pro version that does more. If the free version is too crippled, it’s likely to turn off potential buyers rather than create a demand for conversions to the Pro version.

Over the years I have used many free programs. If it was a shareware program (where you are legally required to pay for the software after a specified time of use, even if the program itself doesn’t enforce that!), then I always either paid for the program, or removed it from my system.

Examples of that are WinZip and Drag and File (later upgraded to Power File, from Canyon Software). While I felt good about both programs, for a very long time, buying them also had the perverse effect of psychologically locking me in to those programs once I paid for them.

Even when alternatives (often free!) became available, I’d feel that I needed to get my money’s worth with the one I bought, and I’d stick with it longer than I should have. For the record, I no longer use either of the programs, even though I own them, and could…

The best part about free, or shareware, is the ability to be sure that a program delivers what you expect (hopefully even more), before shelling out the money for it.

Early in 2008 I started feeling guilty that I wasn’t donating to a few of the software products that I was using regularly, even though they were truly free (not shareware). All three of my favorites were requesting donations (and deserved it!). The three programs I was using back then, on a regular basis were:

Of those three, only Vista Start Menu had a Pro version, enticing you to pay for more features (though the free product is quite awesome on its own). The other two have donation buttons on their websites.

I use Paint.Net whenever I upload photos to my blog. That’s the only time I use it. Even though I can go weeks without launching it, I still it use it regularly enough, that I should donate to the project, and I will.

At one point, even though I was addicted to Launchy, I deleted it from my computer, because it (in conjunction with other background processes) was slowing down my computer. At that point, I was happy I hadn’t paid for it. Then, after getting my computer back to normal, I tried it again, and was again happy with it, without any slowdown. Then I felt guilty that I hadn’t donated.

In the summer of 2008, before the financial meltdown, I decided that I would be more aggressive about paying for programs that I use even semi-regularly, just because it’s the right thing to do. And yet, I didn’t go out and do it right away. That’s because by then, I knew that I would be purchasing a new laptop within the next six months, and I wasn’t sure what operating system I would put on it, or whether I would carry over the same habits/programs even if I stuck with Windows XP.

In November 2008 I finally got my new laptop, and indeed, I switched operating systems to Windows Vista Ultimate x64. I no longer had a need for Launchy, because the basic functionality of Launchy is built right into Vista, and it works really well (Launchy is still awesome, and highly recommended for XP users!).

Paint.NET is still in my arsenal, still on an infrequent but regular basis. Vista Start Menu is no longer on my system. While I think it too is an awesome program, and there is a off chance that I will install at some point in the future, the built in Search in Windows Vista (the part that mimics Launchy) is so powerful, so fast, and always finds what I want instantly, that I just don’t miss Vista Start Menu (though it’s incredibly cool, both conceptually and in its implementation!).

So, now that I’m settled in, I’m ready to fulfill my promise to myself to start paying for things I use regularly, even if they’re free. Especially now, in this economy, I want to support innovative people who create useful software.

So, first up is my favorite VoIP Softphone, Zoiper. For many years, I used a softphone called Diax. I loved it. Unfortunately, I had a few minor problems with it, and at some point, the author stopped maintaining it (it was free). I discovered Zoiper (after trying quite a number of other softphones). I was very happy with it in general as well, though it too presented me with a few problems.

I reported those to the company that produces it, Attractel, and they were amazingly responsive to me via email, even though I was using the free version. Their next release solved all of my problems! At the end of 2007 I wrote to them and told them that even though I didn’t need any of the Biz (their name for a Pro version) extras, I was thinking of buying it just to support them.

As noted above, I ended up rationalizing not doing so for another year. On Friday, I upgraded to the Biz version. So far, the only feature that I have even tested is creating more than two accounts (which is what the free version limits you to). Until I install Asterisk 1.6 (which is still months off for me), I am not likely to even test any other Biz feature. Still, this is a great company, producing great software, and they deserve the support of anyone who uses their stuff!

Next up was backup software. On XP, I was using a combination of two programs. The first was Apricorn EZ Gig II. This is commercial software that came with a hard drive upgrade kit that I purchased a while ago. It can clone hard disks, or make image files that can be restored later on. It works very well, and is very fast. I used it semi-regularly, to make full-image backups of our laptops.

In between those backups, I used Microsoft’s SyncToy program to incrementally backup our most critical content (emails, documents, etc.). There were things about SyncToy that were a little annoying, but mostly, it worked well. It was a version 1.x beta at the time. The new version 2.0 is much better, and only has one annoying thing left (IMHO).

Over time, I started to dislike the EZ Gig II method of backing up, because the only way to access any file on the image backup was to restore the entire image to a disk drive, then pluck out the file(s) that you want. I found another program (free for non-commercial use) called Drive Image XML. It pretty much does what EZ Gig II does, but it also creates an XML file that maps the image to individual filenames (after the image is complete), and individual files can be extracted from the image via an Explorer like interface.

It’s slower than EZ Gig, but not too bad. I used it to image my old XP drive when I got my new Vista-based laptop. Then I copied the image on to the new hard drive. Then I used Drive Image XML directly on the new laptop to access the XP image, and pull out whatever files I wanted, knowing that the rest of the files were at my fingertips.

Unfortunately, while that worked well enough, I found a few files that were showing up in the Explorer interface, but that Drive Image XML couldn’t extract, thinking they were zero length. They shouldn’t have been zero length, so I realized that Drive Image XML wasn’t perfect. Thankfully, I was able to pull them over with a USB key from my old laptop, so they weren’t gone forever.

That got me to search for a better (but similar) program. After reading a bunch, and testing some, I settled on the free version of Macrium Reflect. I was able to image my entire Vista hard drive (while still logged in!) to an external eSATA hard drive, in 55 minutes! It took 193GB and compressed it (with normal compression mode) to 133GB. To restore a file, it mounts the image as a virtual hard drive in Windows, and you use the regular Explorer to browse and copy files. Awesome.

This, in conjuction with SyncToy 2.0 would have been enough for me. I did not need to pay for the Pro version. But, in my new spirit, I wanted to pay for the upgrade. I ended up buying the Family Four Pack (pay for two licenses, get two free). I only need two (one for me, one for Lois), but why not get two emergency licenses in the bargain, just in case, for the same price.

Since the Pro version can do individual files in addition to complete images, and can do incremental and differential images as well (which the free version can’t), I may actually use this tool only, and abandon SyncToy (even though it works well). While my use of Reflect has been minimal so far, I’m really impressed and pleased with this program. If they didn’t have a free version, there’s no way that they would have me as a customer.

I expect to continue to pay/donate for software that I use on a regular basis going forward. I am promising myself that I won’t let that lock me in psychologically should better programs come out in the future. It’s a small price to pay to feel better about doing my bit in keeping these innovative developers going.

Update 1/20/2009: On Windows XP, I used WinPatrol for a reasonably long time. I never had a need for the Plus features, so I never upgraded. When I switched to Vista, I didn’t install WinPatrol. This morning, I decided to add this wonderful program to the list of software that I want to support. I installed the latest version of WinPatrol, and even before I did, purchased a Plus license (just to support the author!). 🙂