Adobe Reader, OpenOffice.org, Google Earth, RootsMagic Essentials, (you might not realize it, but Google Search learns from your previous searches and produces results consistent with those previous searches), QuickTime 7 Player, and on and on and on. So why would a company that makes zillions of dollars selling complicated software programs suddenly decide to give away their products for free?
The answer is extremely complex. One of the concepts I have been thinking about recently is ownership. My past posts have talked about topics from who owns the genealogy companies to who owns genealogy in general. I think the first question that should be asked is whether or not anything is actually free? The Web has 15 different definitions of the English word "free." (see image above) In the sense used here, the best definition is "complimentary: costing nothing; "complimentary tickets"; "free admission."" I would submit that nothing on the Internet is free. Think about it. Do you spend any money to obtain Internet access? What about the cost of the computer? What about the connection fee? What about the cost of the electricity to run your computer/monitor/network connection? What about the time you spend at the computer?
Even if you consider your own time to have no value, someone somewhere had to write the code, obtain server space and publish the "free" software. Have you ever purchased anything over the Internet? Some estimates of online retail sales for 2010 go as high as $173 billion dollars. Internet giant Google gives away free software for the simple reason that it saturates everything it does with advertising. Every "free" search and every "free" program comes with a huge number of ads for a huge variety of products.
Now back to the main question, why is Microsoft giving away its software? The one word answer is "competition." Microsoft wants to make money from its products. But if OpenOffice and Google Docs are free and Microsoft Office costs anywhere from $150 to over $500, why would you spend the extra money to buy Microsoft's products. You would if you believed that the Microsoft product was worth the cost. Since Microsoft is not giving away its programs to advertise other people's products, it must be doing so to advertise its own products. Sort of like going into an ice cream store and getting a free sample. The store depends on the fact that the free sample will turn into additional sales of its products. Microsoft has the same goal, increase sales of its products. Look at the number of iPhones, iPods and iPads sold by Apple by giving away a lot of free software.
Now, from the genealogy perspective. We have had free for a long time. (Not counting the cost of Internet overhead such as connection service etc.) Personal Ancestral File has always been essentially free. There have also been a fairly large number of free genealogy programs and services on the Internet. Personal Ancestral File is an interesting product. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has no other tie-in products to sell and does not carry paid advertisements. But of course the Church does have some fundamental reasons to support genealogy. Those reasons have been enough in the past, to warrant the distribution of a free software program and a very good one at that.
So why does RootMagic have a free version of their program? Back to advertising. The company is banking on the hope that giving away a free version of the program will entice more people to purchase their paid program.
There will always be free offers as long as there are paid products. Some programmers believe that all software should be free. The motivation for this concept is very complicated but rational. But it is about as likely that all software will ever be free as it is that Ferrari will start giving away free cars.
Unfortunately, having a basically free program like Personal Ancestral File has engendered a whole attitude among some genealogy software users that somehow all software should be free. That attitude will unlikely change so long as some companies give away "free" software.