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  Free Community Software?
Thank you for the excellent job you are doing. I would like to know if it is ok for a reputed commercial organisation to use free community software for its e-community? Can you please outline the risks?

Thank you for your excellent question and nice compliment. We appreciate both and hope to be able to assist. Regarding your question, there are some useful free community tools readily available for community owners to consider when launching or expanding their community. These tools include a wide range of chat clients, message board forum software, poll scripts and surveys, with many being developed in various forms, for example with or without banner adverts or other forms of limitation or restriction.

Open Source software or scripts are also available for your consideration. This is software, which is free for use and, as its name implies, for which the source code is open to development, often by communities of programmers and users.

There are in fact so many free community offerings that it would be entirely possible to build a comprehensive community structure using only free tools to provide the means for users to communicate and exchange.

If you are seriously evaluating free tools as an option, it is important to consider the following:

1. Are there restrictions, limitations, or other forms of compromise when choosing a free tool over a commercial one?

The factors:

- consumers of reputed commercial organisations do not in general want to see banner ads, and in fact that might in itself lead consumers to consider the organisation less than reputable.
- tools which very prominently display their "FREE" nature might also be a turn off for customers, since it might communicate "cheapness" or lack of "importance".

2. Are technical support resources or other forms of "customer" assistance adequate to suit your needs?

The factors:

- many free tools are more or less unsupported technically by their developers, meaning if you have problems with installation or set up you might be left alone with the problem. Whilst some freeware programs are well supported, in the case of software which is developed by an individual rather than a company, you cannot expect the same level of responsiveness or support you might otherwise get.

- on the other hand, many Open Source programs because of their community nature do have very strong support, but don't expect to be able to pick up the telephone 24 hours a day, seven days a week to get the assistance you need. Most likely, such support will be available online in a forum or via e-mail.

In addition, there are a number of other factors you should also bear in mind, which might be listed under the heading of "risk assessment".

Is the software widely used so that if you experience difficulties, there is a pool of potential assistance you can draw on? Does the software use standard techniques and facilities so it is not so idiosyncratic that it might cause problems?

Remember too that whilst some software appears to be "free", there may be charges for technical support or other forms of assistance, such as installation, hosting, or other "priority" services. Be sure to know this in advance through some careful research.

In sum, there is no reason why free software cannot do an excellent job when it comes to community provision. In the current climate, particularly, commercial software houses may come and go and so several of the arguments relating to stability of after-sales service may be less relevant. In addition, it is often the case that free software is just as feature-rich as paid equivalents. Often the developers are community users themselves so have a very great understanding of what is required for a community tool.

It's very true that you don't always get what you pay for. First and foremost, make a shortlist of the requirements you have and then match software to it (free and otherwise). If there are free alternatives, research them to ensure that the above considerations are met. If you are convinced that the free software will work for you then there is no reason not to choose it as your solution.

If you need further assistance in choosing the right tool for the job then please feel free to consult our previous answer below:

Technology and the Virtual Community?

Best of luck to you and please do not hesitate to let us know if you have any further questions or we can assist in any way!

- Jon Nix and Pam Thomas
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