Wouldn’t it be great if software was free? Heck, wouldn’t it be great if everything was free?

And a better question: am I talking about “free of charge”, or walking a “Free to Be You and Me” metaphor? Dries Buytaert, the founder of Drupal, thinks software should be free.

Since Mr. Buytaert is in the software business I presume he doesn’t mean that literally. And wow . . . imagine if he did! The software patent question we had a chance to look at yesterday when Apple sued HTC and last week when Facebook somehow won the ridiculous patent 7,669,123 just wouldn’t matter.

What Mr. Buytaert seems to mean is that software itself has no value and so shouldn’t be used as a weapon against the people who use it. In fact, Drupal is free, and you can use it on your web site without paying anyone a penny. On the other hand, if you love Drupal but would like Mr. Buytaert’s company to host it for you, or provide consulting in how to use it best, that’s not free. WordPress, a much more popular content management system, works the same way.

For that matter, Answer Guy Central follows a similar model. There’s lots of stuff we give away, including the words you’re reading right now, and the Answer Guy Central iPhone App. At some point, though, we certainly hope you become a paying client, be it for The Computer Answer Guy, Virtual VIP, PC-VIP, or any of the other services we offer.

Here’s the important question: what, exactly, should be free?

Last year, we did an experiment using a service called Hubspot. As I told you then, Hubspot is an absolutely great way for a business starting from scratch to attract lots of traffic and attention. Note, specifically that I said “starting from scratch”. Using Hubspot requires a commitment that’s just too hard to make if you have an existing web site and don’t feel like tearing it down and starting over.

What’s worse, though, is this: Hubspot’s business model involves holding you hostage. Once you’re in, there’s effectively no way out.

True, your data belongs to you. If you can figure out a way not only to get the information you create and store using Hubspot back out but also to replicate the connections and other important details that make Hubspot do its marketing magic, you are, as they told me when I brought this point up, welcome to leave any time.

But the whole point of using a hosted service like Hubspot (or  Drupal, WordPress, or anywhere) is to avoid the technical overhead. And I promise: if you had the staff and/or expertise to host the software yourself you wouldn’t have opted for the hosted version in the first place.

Mr. Buytaert’s point, on analysis, really means that hosted software needs to give you an easy way out that doesn’t blow up your other business processes. And he’s right. But that isn’t about either form of the word “free”. It’s about companies like Hubspot not creating business models designed to hold you hostage.

If you need help navigating this minefield, you know where to reach me . . .

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