Thursday, July 19, 2012

The hidden cost of "free."

- Deacon Wardlow

Is anything really free these days? When the word “FREE!” appears on an advertisement, is there some part of you which questions, “Ok, but what’s it really going to cost me?” I’m a partial pessimist on things like this and I often wonder where the catch or cost is. I can walk into my favorite ice cream shop for a “free” taste sample, but both the store and I know the chance is good I’m going to leave having bought something and you can rest assured those free samples have been factored into the cost of my cone.

“Free” software for a Programmable LED Sign is a dangerous thing. I’ve been around the block a few times with Electronic Message Centers (EMCs, LED Signs, EDS, etc.). I’ve seen a lot of manufacturers take the route of the generic control system (but the software is free for download). The software may be free to download, but it’ll cost you a lot of time and effort to learn it well enough to support it (you’ll find free support lacking with your free software), and an even larger amount of time to track down someone responsible when something in the software doesn’t work the way it should. All this time (money) wasted because a manufacturer wanted something “free” and didn’t want to spend more to develop their own software. That bit of free will cost you in the long term.

Another issues with the word “free” is it's often masked by the word “included.” Anything that’s included is paid for by you, it’s just not itemized. Make sure the real cost on non-standard add-ons is given to you up front and a manufacturer can show you what is really “included” and what’s not. Do customers need wireless radio communications “included” if they’re going to use a direct-connect cable? A good manufacturer (and their sales reps) will work with you to ensure an end-user gets what they need and doesn’t end up pay for an awning on a submarine.

The last bit on free I have is the “free” support offered by many manufacturers. That support isn’t free, it’s included in the cost of your message center. Things like this shouldn’t be labeled as “free” or “included” they should be standard. Finding a manufacturer who will stand behind and support their product line is a must. If they list something as “free” or “included” be wary because they may one day decide that option comes at a higher cost than you want to pay. Remember, the first taste is free, but one way or another you’ll end up paying.

*Please comment here and/or email me directly with requests at Vantage LED has white paper resources and more educational material on the website (, please check it out when you have a moment.

**Note all posts/thoughts/writings are strictly the viewpoint of me and me alone and do not reflect nor speak for Vantage LED’s beliefs, attitudes, thoughts, etc. unless specifically stated.

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