IT intelligence: free software

Robin Fisk asks whether charities should consider choosing free software.

The dot-com bubble challenged the commercial models of technology provision. At the start, e-businesses mushroomed, some promising shareholder value with little more than the promise of selling advertising space. Since then, interesting new models of charging for technology have been pioneered.

Software prices have dropped since Office-type applications became commodities. Word would have cost about £300 in 1989; now it costs about half that. Some software companies now offer their products for free, their revenues coming from sources such as support and advertising. So what exactly could you get for nothing these days?

Assuming you have a PC or Mac network with access to the net, there are certain software essentials: word-processing, spreadsheet and presentation software. Try the web-based Google Docs and ThinkFree offerings, or the OpenOffice.org tool, which you install yourself. Free email software includes Google Mail, Thunderbird and Hotmail. Google Mail provides large storage capacity and spam protection. Free server-based email software is also available.

You could build yourself a website using a content-management system such as Drupal or a basic page-creation system such as Google's Page Creator. You could add forms to your site, interactive maps and community features such as forums - see www.freedback.com, pininthemap and Yahoo! Groups.You might also build a database using software such as MySQL and PHP.

So it's possible, but is it desirable? Probably not, judging by the choices made by charities. Their concerns include issues of support, security, reliability and functionality.

You still get what you pay for, in other words. But remember, it's the value that counts - not just the initial cost.

- Robin Fisk is managing director of software company Fisk Brett.

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