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Caveat Freebie:
Understanding the Risks of Free Business Services on the Web

Published in Inc Magazine

Your article, "Cut-rate Collaboration," [Inc Tech 2000, No. 2] did not mention any of the caveats of building business functions on free intranet services.

Getting quality technical support is the biggest problem with the free services. Most are loss-leaders to draw potential customers into the paid services, so a frequent response to support questions is a recommendation to "upgrade" to the paid version of the service.

Availability can also be a problem. If the site's servers are overloaded or down, or if your own Internet connection is disrupted, you lose access to the service.

Since many free services are really marketing tools, the site may make unannounced changes to the functions or policies of the site. You may have come to rely on that "sort by mother's maiden name" function, when the company's chief marketeer decides to
replace it with the "attach RealVideo stream" function to get more press coverage.

There is also the not-insignificant possibility that the entire enterprise could disappear as the VC money runs out, taking all of your data with it.

Before using any outside web site, free or paid, for a critical business function, be sure to ask the following questions:

What are the site's support policies? Is there a commitment to a specific response time?

Does the site announce functional or policy changes to users in advance?

What is the site's record of availability? Is there a way to get a status report if there are any problems?

Do you have a contingency plan if the site should become inaccessible for an extended period of time?

Free and low-cost intranet sites can be an attractive option when budgets are tight, but understand the limitations and risks of these services before committing your business to them.