Frank Catalano, Practical Nerd

In tech, nothing quite equals the siren lure of “free.” I still recall a friend of mine from Microsoft being amazed at the continued appeal of the lowly t-shirt. She described, in an awestruck-yet-cautionary tone, trade show attendees who happily applied Microsoft tattoos to their faces in the hope of being spotted on the show floor and awarded free t-shirts (with, of course, another logo plugging Microsoft).

But when I say “free,” I don’t mean t-shirts, open source software or even digital products and services we expect to be free because – like personal email, social networking sites and news – they are provided by so many companies that we think of them as commodities (and for which we pay with our personal information and/or exposure to advertising).

No, I mean “free” proprietary software and content that we’d expect to carry a price tag. When there’s no charge, geeks flock as if the general rules of commerce don’t apply. It also means Ulysses was likely the first consumer protection advocate – when faced with a siren lure, he was smart enough to lash himself to a mast.

Not all of us are that smart (or have valiant friends with rope handy and beeswax in their ears). We want to believe every proffered meal is a no-risk lunch. Yet based on recent experience, I found eventually you do pay, often in ways you may not expect.

Two of my recent teachable moments:

“Free” personal VPN. Anyone who uses a public WiFi hotspot knows, deep down, it’s a good idea to use a virtual private network to encrypt what’s flying through the air between your device and the WiFi router. In order to try a personal VPN before subscribing to a service, based on prominent reviews I installed AnchorFree’s Hotspot Shield. I thought putting up with some annoying banner ads was a small price to pay for the added security and “free”-dom.

A year ago I’d finally had it with the lame performance and annoying ads, so I removed Hotspot Shield using the uninstaller in Windows’ Add or Remove Programs Control Panel. Or so I thought.

Recently, I discovered Internet proxy settings that seemed related to Hotspot Shield. Examining my laptop some more, I found remnants of the program in my network adapters, Windows registry and Windows files. Searching Google, I discovered many other people had similar problems after using AnchorFree’s stock uninstaller – and in several reported cases, Hotspot Shield would repeatedly try and re-install itself after being uninstalled. Apparently Hotspot Shield wanted to be the Godfather 3 of software: It wouldn’t let you stop using it.

No problem, I thought. I’ll do a full manual uninstall. What I quickly learned is while AnchorFree’s website makes it easy to install and tell all your friends, there is only a single well-hidden support page with a basic, seven-question FAQ. No user forums. No detailed uninstall instructions.

Of course, I couldn’t use CCleaner or Revo Uninstaller since I’d already run the Windows uninstaller. I did several more Google searches, found a unrelated site with instructions, and spent a couple of more hours cleaning up the laptop. And thanked myself for having switched to paid, reliable and insanely-easy-to-reach personal VPN provider a year earlier.

True price of free Hotspot Shield? Hours of time, uncertainty and frustration. And reduced trust in glowing tech publication reviews.

“Free” streaming music. I’ve used Pandora, I’ve used Slacker. So when Spotify recently made it across the pond to the U.S. propelled by Twitter peeps giddy to be considered Spotify insiders, I was pleasantly surprised to hear that listeners could stream specific songs, artists and albums – basically, full direct access to any song. Even in the free version. It also played nicely (so to speak) with all the music I already had on my hard drive, intelligently knowing when it didn’t need to stream a selection.

I signed up. Installed the application. Tried it. Initially loved it. But was less pleasantly surprised to see that when Spotify wasn’t playing audio, it was using my network connection. A lot.

Google searching this time uncovered something not immediately disclosed by Spotify: the application employs built-in peer-to-peer networking technology to share streaming music from its cache on my computer with other Spotify users who want the same tunes, presumably taking the load off Spotify’s own servers. There’s almost no mention of this P2P functionality on Spotify’s own site. And no way to throttle or turn off the upstream P2P use in either the free or paid version which, probably, is a key part of Spotify’s business and technology model. (As is a large local hard disk cache, reportedly a minimum of 1GB. At least hard drive space is cheap.)

Spotify, effectively, shifts some of its bandwidth costs to users which, in a perfect world without relatively new Comcast, Verizon Wireless and AT&T bandwidth caps or tiered pricing, would not matter. Yet it does. No “free” streaming service is worth the risk of pissing off the Xfinity limit police and losing my Internet service.

True price of free Spotify? Slowing down my system even when I’m not actively using the program, and potential cancellation of web access. At least it uninstalled cleanly.

In the cases of both Hotspot Shield and Spotify, the problem wasn’t so much the eventual price I paid as much as the fact that the true cost wasn’t clear until after I’d committed.

There are other instances in which digital consumers are finding the “free” version of what once was paid has hidden catches. For example, one I’ve written about is “free” instructional content for schools (formally known as Open Educational Resources, the curriculum content equivalent of open source software). OER has great appeal as educators face shrinking budgets and outdated paper textbooks.

OER already has been put to good use by savvy and motivated teachers. But at the recent International Society for Technology in Education conference, administrators were starting to wonder who – or what – was going to intelligently tie free content chunks together into actual, usable lessons and units for all teachers as OER use spreads. Commented one state education official, “No [educator] is down in their basement at 2am, saying ‘I’ve got to crank out this scope and sequence.'”

The lesson I’ve been taught? Before installing a free software or service, I ask the question I used to pose before attempting any do-it-yourself home improvement project: If it goes badly, what’s the worst that could happen? (Hint to homeowners: After a certain point, you stop asking  this question if either running water or electricity is involved.)

If, for that cool “free” software, content or service, it’s just wasted time, it may be worth the risk. But if it’s your system stability, your Internet access or even your kid’s teacher showing up exhausted and unprepared, well … you may want to reconsider.

A free t-shirt might simply shrink. That, at least, is a price for a “free” technology product I’m willing to pay.

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  • Ayman Al-Abdullah

    When you get something for free, it’s because you’ve become the product

    • FrankCatalano

      While that’s a glib comment I’ve seen before in privacy vs. free service debates, it’s not always true. Sometimes free is the first step on the path to an upsell as with Spotify. But even if true, products still should behave.

    • FrankCatalano

      While that is a wonderfully concise and glib comment on privacy vs. free services that I have seen before, it is not completely true in every case. Spotify, for example, is going for an upsell. Amd even if true, products should still behave.

    • Frank Catalano

      While that’s a glib comment I’ve seen before in privacy vs. free service
      debates, it’s not always true. Sometimes free is the first step on the
      path to an upsell as with Spotify. But even if true, products still
      should behave.

  • Ayman Al-Abdullah

    When you get something for free, it’s because you’ve become the product

  • Craig Truzzi

    Your Chrome homepage is getting 2 404 errors, one for a js file and the other for a css file. They are suppose to be in the w3tc/min folder. 

  • Craig Truzzi

    Your Chrome homepage is getting 2 404 errors, one for a js file and the other for a css file. They are suppose to be in the w3tc/min folder. 

  • Guest

    Spotify by default reserves 10% of each user’s hard drive. The minimum cache size is 1 GB. To take 75 GB of my hard drive for music storage is completely unacceptable and, for that reason, I do not use nor recommend Spotify.

    If I’m expected to pay as much as $120 per year for music, I ought to receive, not provide, storage.

  • @CascadeRam

    useful and great examples, also a good reminder that there is no such thing as a free lunch

  • guest

    faulty logic here… All the problems attributed to free software/apps above could apply to paid for software/apps just as easily.  In that case, you’re out the initial cost of software plus the after-effects…

    • Frank Catalano

      Actually, I think the logic is solid: the product in both cases is not “free.” Paid products have an explicit cost. Free products may have hidden costs. But with a paid product, you have several possible avenues of recourse: the expectation of some kind of support or, even, if it misbehaves, invoking a money-back guarantee (if there is one) or going so far as disputing a credit card charge or filing a complain with a consumer protection agency or the Better Business Bureau. When it’s free, you’re basically screwed. All those avenues are closed off.

      • Ausmanager

        Well, if paid version of product like Spotify does it then in addition to troubles similar to free version you need to add time wasting disputing credit card charge. We recently had this experience after upgrading free Gmail to paid version. It turned out that it has bigger problems than free version (due to not being able to handle larger storage) but the same level of support: none! I got the feeling that those issues are more related to mentality of the company rather than free vs paid.

  • Thomas Johnson

    If Spotify loses a copyright suit, expect all hard drives that provide storage to be subpoenaed.

    • Sabat

      Spotify is legit and has deals with record companies whose music they host. There will be no suits.

    • Sabat

      Spotify is legit and has deals with record companies whose music they host. There will be no suits.

    • Sabat

      Spotify is legit and has deals with record companies whose music they host. There will be no suits.

  • FrankCatalano

    To expand on one point: I’ve heard from at least one person who was concerned that, when it came to digital Open Educational Resources, I was directly correlating cost, IP and quality — and perhaps equating OER in general with poorly behaved free products.

    I mentioned OER to point out that another hidden price of free is time. OER has incredible potential to transform educational materials in K-12 (as I outline both in an earlier GeekWire essay and in a much longer piece on my website at ).

    There’s a risk of OER being oversold in its current state while the means to intelligently find, combine and deliver the resources catch up to the potential. Tech-savvy and motivated teachers appear to do fine with OER today. But making OER work for every teacher may still require additional tools (paid or free) and perhaps a “training wheels” approach for some.

    Many foundations, organizations, government agencies and even commercial companies are working hard to make OER even more of a presence in K-12. Pitfalls from the siren lure of “free,” which crop up when all costs aren’t fully considered, can be an issue in education, too, even with a seemingly unstoppable force such as OER.

  • Joe

    Only 8.8% of Spotify’s music is actually streamed off of their servers and most of that is for their mobile clients because that doesn’t use p2p. It’s largely to reduce latency, not just cost for themselves. Source:

    • FrankCatalano

      Interesting. I suspect to reduce latency they could also use edge servers (as I recall that’s one function of them, but my memory may be rusty). But that, too, would cost Spotify.

      • Anonymous

        why don’t you like p2p?, its the best distribution method for all kinds of data. Really you shuold be angry at your ISP for implementing arbitrary limits so that they can artificially segment their products in order to justify high fees for some services.

        • FrankCatalano

          P2P is a fine technology and distribution approach. When it’s clearly disclosed so one can make an informed decision.

  • Pekka Väänänen

    I think you forgot Skype from this blog post, it uses P2P technology too. 

    • FrankCatalano

      In my experience, Skype has been well-behaved and has no hidden “price.”

      • Anonymous

        That’s because you haven’t been designated as a super node.

        • FrankCatalano

          Could be. That said, the post isn’t about P2P. It’s about hidden costs and cites two examples with which I have direct experience (not all possible examples). It just so happens one has a P2P “price.”

  • Gustavo Varela Raggio

    Spotify is awesome, also if you are not playing music it uses CPU, RAM and DISK. Just to know, do you still use dialup ?

    • FrankCatalano

      With Spotify, the issues are ISP bandwidth caps and lack of clear disclosure.

    • Anthony Grimes

      Bandwidth caps are a 100% real problem that absolutely does not only apply to dialup users. Believe it or not, there are some places in the United States and other countries that do not have access to wired internet connections like DSL. In those situations, a person is limited to three options: dialup (a non-option), satellite (an almost non-option because of latency), and mobile internet. 

      All three of those come with caps in almost every situation. The only major mobile carrier that still offers an unlimited mobile data plan is Sprint and that wont last forever. It actually currently only applies on phones and explicitly not on mobile broadband devices. There is no unlimited satellite provider.

      Yes, Spotify is awesome. That doesn’t mean you can dismiss its failure to disclose this information when it is of the utmost importance to some people. You’re very fortunate that you aren’t one of us.

  • Irishramu

    Spotify sucks

  • Anonymous

    I think it’s important to realize your usage of “free” as a synonym for exploitation and malware applies solely to the Windows software ecosystem. It’s in the context of Microsoft, which has both setup the expectation of paying for software and not provided a centralized software installation and update API.

    This is contrasted with “free” as used to describe Linux operating system and its many community maintained repositories of free software, which means avoiding exactly the type of exploitation, secrecy, and maluse of system resources you have mentioned.

    • FrankCatalano

      I’m afraid it doesn’t apply solely to Windows, nor was Windows the first. The expectation of paying for software long predates Windows even on the personal computing platform (Apple //, PC-DOS, etc.). And proprietary commercial software exists on MacOS as well as Windows, not to mention a number of niche and mobile operating systems. So you can’t pin this entirely on Microsoft.

      While Linux has benefits, it has a price, too. It’s time. That’s actually where the “free like a puppy, not free like a beer” line was first applied — at an open source debate.

  • Scott Schnaars

    Great post, reminds me of this old, probably free t-shirt I saw at work one day:

  • Scott Ruthfield

    Frank, I honestly don’t understand why this article is about “free,” except that this is an interesting buzzword these days. 

    Spotify: as you note, the P2P use of your bandwidth applies to both the free _and the paid_ version. If you’re concerned about the bandwidth usage of the “free” product, going to the paid product doesn’t help you. You say “True price of free Spotify,” but really you mean “True price of Spotify.”

    Hotspot Shield: you installed a piece of poorly-written software and it was hard to uninstall. I don’t know if that’s more likely to be true for free software than non-free software: certainly I’ve installed poorly-written software where they wanted my money before. I think the teflon-covered pan from the dollar store is likely to lose its coating before the one from Macy’s, but I don’t know that for sure either. Probably free software has a crappier support model, but that’s only hidden if you don’t do any investigation – which for a VPN product you probably might do just the littlest bit anyway.

    It seems like you attached to “free” when you really mean “sometimes software doesn’t work the way you expect.” Not as clever, perhaps. Am I missing something?

    • FrankCatalano

      Yes, you are. The essay is about software marketed as “free” that has undisclosed costs. Free is no buzzword. It’s a stated price with a long history. And free frequently does come with a catch, though it’s usually clear. In these two cases, it wasn’t.

      Never mind that Spotify has a paid version; the hidden cost remains (and actually becomes an extra cost for customers of the paid version). As to research on personal VPNs, I did more than most, seeking out editorial reviews in several well-known online publications from reviewers who apparently never uninstalled it.

      • Scott Ruthfield

        OK. In the essay, you actually say “No, I mean “free” proprietary software and content that we’d expect to carry a price tag.” That seems like a specific definition involving dollars, not a general definition involving unpleasant product behavior.

        Realistically, though, I can hardly see the hair between “it can come with a catch” and “doesn’t work the way you expect,” so I expect we’ll just disagree on this one.

      • Anonymous

        yeah but all you are doing is redefining the word free. They are using free to mean ‘no financial cost’ which is usually a concern when deciding to enter into a licensing agreement with a vendor. You are simply redefining the measure of value to include things like bandwidth, time etc. 

        They never made a claim about these things however … really by your usage of the word free it is not possible to have anything for free because there is always a cost, that is due to entropy.

    • JED

      Your point is good and true.. But you have to think about
      -How much you know about computers, software, as well as your system… :)

      I read most of the comments and almost 99 % them are -basic users- or talkin as basic users…


  • Someone

    Ulysses?  I think you mean Odysseus.

    • FrankCatalano

      Ulysses = Odysseus. One is Latin, the other Greek, for the name of the same Greek king. Choice depends upon one’s classical preference.

  • Konerak

    The T-shirt might shrink, but there might be details attached like “we keep all the rights on photo’s of you wearing the shirt” effectively allowing them to use your image(s) in their commercials. Free is never free…

    • FrankCatalano

      That would be damn funny – to see that kind of language on the shirt’s inside tag.

      • qneill

        Damn funny in a dark side of the moon, another brick in the wall, we’re all going to die, hysterical sort of way.  “Do not remove this tag under penalty of death”.

  • Ramones

    I have to agree with you after installing a “free” zip software that was a total pain in the a$$ to uninstall — and didn’t even work!

  • Harcourt Fenton Mudd

    This article helped me decide against using Spotify, thank you Frank!
      As for most of you guest commenting trolls hoping for a psychological victory or make-wrong, please consider the INTENT of Frank’s post rather than picking at his words as if you were vultures. 

  • JED

    Free softwares are just fine UNLESS; you are good at computers, softwares.. Knowledge is ofcourse something you gotto think about.. This is a wonderful writing about -FREE- users, softwares.. As a FREE user, as a simple person who uses internet since its on; I would not PAY for anything in this world.. Sorry to be too honest and too Mr Everythingknows.. Sorry if I sounded like that.. But I think, you gotto be adding to your writing; -do not touch to free things unless you have an idea of them-… Cause, I use free and I am knowing what I do..

    As a result,
    Everything depends on HOW MUCH YOU KNOW IT…



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