07 October 2004

Yours, free to keep

Unsolicited samples, books, and internet connection CDs often drop through my letterbox calling themselves 'free gifts' but they are almost invariably bait, designed to haul me in for something very expensive. The world of free statistics software, however, is gratifyingly different.

Much depends, of course, on what you mean by 'free'. For the purposes of this survey, I adopted the phrase used to describe Britain's National Health Service medical provision: 'free at the point of delivery'. In other words, you get something real and useful, of lasting value, with no catch or punitive small print, and you pay nothing in monetary terms for its procurement. That doesn't mean there is no cost. National Health Service beneficiaries meet the cost of their treatment through taxes and national insurance contributions; free software users, in general, pay through investment of their time.

That is the crux of the question: 'why pay'?

I talked to a lot of users of both free and commercial software (very often the same people) and, overwhelmingly, the reason behind their choice was the fact that statistical software free of a price tag is often free in other senses as well. On the plus side, the user is free to tinker with and customise it; on the debit side, free software may have no guaranteed support. The second most common reason for 'going free' was the perception that a tool would be used only once or twice. Between those limits, there is a staggering amount of statistical software within my 'free at the point of delivery' definition. There is also a political dimension. [Read more]

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