The Cost of “Free” – A Cautionary Tale

By Wayne Scaggs

Wow! Do you know how much I can save if I buy a computer without the operating system? I can save several hundred dollars! There are hundreds of operating systems available, though, so which one is right for me?

First, I know I don’t want to pay for a Windows operating system because it costs too much. I also know that I can now get open source software for free (why didn’t I think of this before?). But there are still so many to choose from! Which one is best for me? I hear a lot of talk about Linux, which is free, so maybe this is the one for me. Oh, but which Linux distribution and which version? I need help! I’ll ask my friends and see what they recommend. This is so easy – why pay Windows for an operating system? Eeny, meeny, miny, moe: Red Hat, CentOS, Ubuntu, Fedora – they are all Linux operating systems so there can’t be that much difference between them. I’ve heard a lot about Red Hat and it’s featured on Dell’s website. I’m going with Red Hat.

My new Dell computer has arrived! I bought it without an operating system, but now I can’t get on the Internet to get my free operating system. I’ll call Dell for support. “I just bought this computer, and it doesn’t work.” Guess what? They won’t help me. I should send this computer back – it’s no good because I can’t get on the Internet to download my free operating system.

One of my friends told me to use my old Windows computer to download the operating system from the Internet, copy it to a DVD, and install it on my new computer. Okay, I did that. But my display looks funny – and what are all these questions about the installation? Why doesn’t it load just like Windows? No one told me I had to find and install the correct driver for my monitor. I figured out the keyboard and mouse myself; this should be a piece of cake. The next thing I discover is that my network connection is bad. I cannot connect to other computers on my network or to the Internet. After all my hard work, the computer has one problem after another. I’m thinking, This is a piece of junk. Another friend tells me how to find the correct network driver, and I try it again. Okay, now it is working. Great! I finally have a “free” operating system working on my new computer. My home computer is taken care of.

Now, what about technology at work? I run a small call center. I heard that Asterisk has a free PBX that is used in call centers, so I should be able to replace my expensive call center switch with Asterisk and FreePBX. My friend said it has everything I need. I am going to do it. I have come this far, so why not go all the way? I’ve already figured out how to get a free operating system, so why not download a free switch for my business? I’m sure it’s just a matter of finding and installing some more free software, right?

Nine-and-a-half months later, after countless downloads and too many trials and errors to count, I still need help with my new Asterisk switch. None of my friends have any answers. My customers are upset, and I’m losing business. My new switch can’t do what I need, the queues do not work right, and the dial plans are too hard to figure out. Yes, I’ve learned a lot, including the ability to program dial plans. It was easy at first until my biggest customer asked for a new, complicated feature. My competitor can offer this, but I cannot program Asterisk to do what is needed. I know! I will hire an Asterisk programmer. Wait, I need a programmer who knows how to control Asterisk, not someone who just knows Asterisk.

I’ve explained at least ten times what I need, but this so-called expert still can’t get it right. This is costing me a lot of money. I thought Asterisk was free! What should I do now? This doesn’t seem like such a bargain after all.

Lesson learned: Not all bargains are really bargains, and “free” often has a price tag.

[From Connection Magazine June 2012]

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