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The Truth About Free Authoring Tools

At Play in the Cloud

It’s hard to believe that, not long ago in the grand scheme of things, we were still purchasing boxed software “off the shelf” and were limited to desktop installations and local storage. Now, the landscape has completely changed.

Most software these days, from the smallest tool to the largest suite, is subscription-based cloud software often referred to as SaaS (Software as a Service). This is not just an evolution to which we have borne witness; it is a revolution, as it has completely disrupted not only the ways in which we build and serve up technology solutions, but how people interact with those solutions and the expectations with which they come to the table and the precedents that have been set. 

I, for one, am a fan of this revolution. The benefits of a SaaS model are innumerable, but I will go ahead and innumerate a few. For one, it means having access to the latest and greatest at all times and at a predictable cost  ̶  not just bug fixes and patches, but features, tooling, performance, user experience, and almost every facet of a software solution.

For instance, with something like Adobe’s Creative Cloud, the price of a subscription will get you entirely new applications as they are released at no additional cost; your 10-app suite just became an 11, 12, or 20-app suite and your budget incurred no extra burden. Granted, as an individual you may only use a portion of that suite, but the value proposition cannot be ignored when considering the depth and breadth of the offering and its relevance as a comprehensive solution in a collaborative group setting.  

Additionally, this subscription-based model encourages continual experimentation and learning. In the past, I may have been relegated to a 5-year or even 10-year old version of a tool, as it would have been too expensive, or at the very least too indulgent, to purchase a new version of a boxed software solution just to try out the new tools and qualify their potential value to my toolchain  ̶  even just for the sake of learning and keeping abreast of the latest tools and techniques. With the new subscription model, the purchasing decision has already been made and I never have to make the choice between growth as a content creator having access to new and innovative features and tools vs. the cost to upgrade serviceable but archaic legacy software.  

Though being “forced to upgrade” comes at a cost over the entire lifespan of your software purchase, I would strongly argue that it is an acceptable and necessary premium when you consider the benefits of innovation, exploration, experimentation, and the inherent productivity gains that come with progress in the realm of user experience and friction-free workflows.

Free, as in Beer

So far, though, we have only discussed “pay-for” software. There is, of course, a whole other world of software for which there is no initial cost. For the purposes of this discussion, free software really falls into one of two categories. There is truly cost-free software  ̶  what we often refer to as “free, as in beer”  ̶  and then there is software that is cost-free but limited and requires payment to unlock the full potential of that solution.  

I am intentionally leaving out software that comes at a cost but is open source -- what we often refer to as “free, as in speech”  ̶  as we are focusing on software for which there is no upfront cost for usage. If you want to hear more of my thoughts around open source software, you can check out my earlier blog post Should You Open Source Your Educational Technology?  As knowbly™ is a content authoring tool, I am particularly interested in that space, but what I am about to share can be applied to any free (as in beer) software solution. 

authoring tool free software

I often like to think about these things in terms of what I call a “universal currency.” Nothing, in essence, is free  ̶ everything has a universal cost associated with it and someone has to pay that cost. When you pay less for a resource, in other words, someone or something else (or you, in a different manner than expected) had to pay more to cover the deficit.  

That “more” may have come in the form of underpaid and exploitative labor, or damage to the environment, or a travesty of justice in one form or another.

It may even come in some indiscernible and seemingly innocuous form  ̶  we truly believed we had unlocked a secret or magical or ingenious way to overcome universal cost only to find out years or decades later that we weren’t as brilliant as we once supposed. But I will leave these more esoteric quandaries of ethics for another time, as right now we are talking about software, in general, and authoring tools in particular.

Free at What Cost?

So then, armed with this idea of universal currency and universal cost, how do we understand it within the context of a software purchase? As with most things, to answer this question requires personal introspection and honesty. Ask yourself:

What are the technical competencies of you and/or your team?

How much is your time worth?

How often are you willing to roll up your sleeves and get under the hood to get things done?

Free software tools, in general, have been known to provide many inherent benefits as a result of the relatively universal philosophies adopted by their creators. They are typically highly flexible and malleable, able to be combined with other free or non-free tools to build out a bespoke solution specifically suited to your individual needs and, wherever and whenever they fall short, they can be extended and customized by the “purchaser” to create even better solutions.  

free software authoring tool

Sounds great, doesn’t it? The ultimate win. Here comes the reality check, though. Do you and/or your team have the technical skills to build, customize, and maintain your ultimate solution? At what cost? Now that you have pieced together a suite of amazing free tools  ̶  and there are many amazing free tools out there  ̶ are you ready to take on the burden of repeating the exercise when one tool needs to be upgraded and, thus, breaks compatibility with the other tools in your suite or, even worse, you are forced to remain in the past and opt out of upgrades in order to retain that complex, yet fragile, compatibility matrix? 

Part of what you get when you pay for software is the intentional and often guaranteed maintenance of compatibility with the tooling supported within the suite. You may or may not be able to customize the tool depending on the vendor  ̶  some are more open than others  ̶  and you are certainly more subjected to the platform vendor’s enforced opinions, but the upside is a holistic approach to platform development and some semblance of a guarantee that it will just work and will continue to work for as long as you are paying for the solution.  

The benefits go beyond the technical, as well. The same holistic approach that brings you dependability and liberates you from the trials and tribulations of maintenance, also brings you benefits in user experience and the “ergonomics” of the tools which, in turn, generally equate to benefits in productivity. There is a uniformity to the design which leads to less context-switching and, ultimately, increased output in both quantity and quality. Higher productivity is always a desirable return on investment, in my opinion. 

Free and open source software (even “free, as in beer”) is a beautiful thing  ̶  I am a huge fan of it, after all  ̶ but we have to be honest about the cost of “no cost.” Few free software projects have the luxury of being backed by a foundation or corporate sponsor, for instance. Thus, absent revenue from sales, there is much less to guarantee the longevity and persistence of the project. There is a cost, after all, to developing software and someone has to pay that cost lest the software, or software developer, just disappear. I never really understood the practice of pirating software, or music, or movies  ̶  even when I was desperate to consume those things but in no position to afford them  ̶  when doing so would directly impede the continued existence of the professions and pastimes from which I derive much usage and joy.   

While using free software is not an act of piracy, it does share the same conundrum. If you love a tool, if you benefit from its use and, in turn, increase your income or revenue through higher productivity and output, better quality of life, and a host of other value adds, should you not want to return some of that back to the creator or creators of that tool  ̶  to complete the circle and to help ensure the continued success of everyone involved? That success will, in turn, equate to further advancement and innovation which, in turn, will come back to you and further enhance your experience with said tool and the value it adds to your life and work. 

But, again, we come back to what cost you are truly willing to pay? Free software, while on the surface very enticing, can become a zero sum game for all involved. Whether it comes at the expense of productivity, user ergonomics, a high cost of maintenance, or a fragile ecosystem of tools that could either fail at any moment with no reliable recourse or be stuck in the past for fear of collapse if anything were to be touched or altered in any manner  ̶  the person that often pays the price for free software is you and/or your team.

Even I Pay for Software

That is not to say the cost of free software is not a fair cost to pay. By trade, I build complex and custom technology solutions and, in doing so, leverage many amazing and powerful free and open source tools and libraries. I am willing to take on the inherent burdens of such ownership because it is my job. Simply put, it is what I am meant to do. The technology burdens don’t prevent me from focusing on the task at hand, because they are the task at hand  ̶  they are my focus and, in truth, my joy.  

That said, even though I have a high technical acumen and immense patience and resilience when it comes to wrestling with disparate and sometimes less than compatible technologies, when I can pay for something to enhance my productivity and, in essence, just get out of my way so that I can remain focused on the more important challenges of my vocation and work, I do so without hesitation. Would you, in your role, prefer to wrangle a DIY suite of authoring tools, or would you delight in being able to reclaim and repurpose that time and energy and direct it toward making use of an authoring tool built with turnkey ergonomics at the forefront? I imagine the latter is true. 

I encourage you to explore the free solutions out there. Evaluate them under the microscope of universal cost and try to discern the true and ultimate cost of ownership for you  ̶  after all, it is a personal decision that only you can make. If, after doing so, you find yourself comfortable with the cost, more power to you. I commend you, in act, as you are contributing to the viability of free and/or open source technologies for everyone. Just be sure you are not being penny wise and pound foolish, as the saying goes. 

authoring tool giving back

The last thing I will say is that, should you adopt free solutions, I encourage you to find your own way to give back. If you extend a tool or fix a bug, contribute that code back to the project. If the developer has a way to donate to the project, give what you can. If you can’t do those things, maybe you can blog about the tool to help spread the word. In fact, I’ll practice what I preach right now and mention Vue.js, a free and open source framework for building powerful web applications that we use everyday here at knowbly™ to create the responsive and intuitive user interfaces our customers have come to know and love. All that to say, remain a good citizen of the world and we will all benefit and win together. 

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