Well, the answer is, it depends! In the case of construction estimating software, it really boils down to the value of getting and using something which is free. No one is going to create free software without any regard for getting something in return. Software may be provided by someone with the perception of being “free” and without a direct cost, but often there is a price to be paid by the user of this free software. Software may be provided by someone with the perception of being “free” and without a direct cost, but often there is a price to be paid by the user of this free software.
So what does that really mean?
Let’s start with the more invasive risk considerations. Before you can download that free software, you typically need to enter personal information about yourself. This is usually more for marketing follow up where after downloading, you end up with a whole bunch of marketing solicitations.
Sure, you can provide an illegitimate email address and phony data, but that doesn’t prevent you from being tracked by unscrupulous providers. Worse, you might find downloadable software where you do not need to provide any information at all, but unbeknownst to the user, the downloaded software contains malware or some other infection that you are not aware of and is possibly not caught by your anti-virus software.
The risk of malware may be less of an issue with construction estimating software since it has a focus for a much smaller market segment than general utility programs, but there are other important considerations.
Construction estimating is not a simple process
Downloading free construction estimating software is not going to provide a whole lot of value. It might be free because it is very basic or is designed to promote visibility of the person or company providing the download. That tends to border more on the concept of Freeware or Freemium software which is designed to provide some level of free usage, but core functions are restricted and only available for a monetary cost. Worse, this type of software may contain “unwanted” extras such as advertising modules and unnecessary toolbars. This approach is really to designed create visibility and promote the more useful paid-for versions of the software.
Perhaps the annoyances or lack of capabilities of free software won’t bother you if your primary objective is to find software which doesn’t cost anything. But just because software is free, doesn’t mean there isn’t a cost to you. Would spending the time and effort to find free software really be the best approach to take for something which should be as integral and important to managing your business as finding good quality construction software.
As an analogy, if you are a contractor, you probably won’t try to buy the cheapest construction tools you can find and hope they work, don’t break, or worse, cause harm to you, your employees or your business. On the other hand, you will probably try to find the best value you can for the tools you need but at the best price. The same logic applies to construction estimating and business management software.
Potential errors can cause real harm
You probably are not willing to use something which could potentially be incorrect, inaccurate, outdated, unsupported, or just incapable of handling the job? That’s the risk you run when looking for free software. Time is money so wasting time to find something for free or using something which is not providing the value you need doesn’t make common sense. Good construction estimating software will come with a price. But the cost saving to you and increased efficiencies in your business by using good quality software should and will offset these costs.
Access is key
The other consideration these days in terms of free construction estimating software is the lack of free software even available to download. You might say that you can download a ton of easy to use apps for your phone or tablet, but these are not self-running business applications. They are user-interfaces to backend systems which provide the value. Think of your banking application as an example. It is just a window into the bank’s sophisticated and complex online applications.
In fact, the days of being able to find good business-oriented software available for download as a self-running application are just about gone. There are still programs available to download which are probably 10+ years old, but unless you are downloading a spreadsheet template, these programs are typically outdated, unsupported and will be a challenge, if not impossible, to run on the latest computer, tablet or mobile device. These applications just do not run using the latest Microsoft, Apple or associated mobile operating systems.
The standard technology now to enable access to good business software is provided using cloud software technologies. Cloud software is not something you buy and download. You pay a subscription for the privilege of using cloud-software which typically can be accessed with any internet accessible device. This concept of “leasing” the right to use someone else’s software and not ever buying, downloading, owning and storing this on your computer may be a foreign concept to some and perhaps even unsettling, but that is the current trend of where software is today. This is just more pervasive as a standard in other industries than it is in the construction marketplace.
Cloud software is actually a much better solution for your business in many regards than the older downloading of construction estimating programs.
For one, you don’t have to worry about problems with your computer crashing, losing your data or not working correctly after an upgrade. You also don’t have to keep reinstalling updates of the existing software. New releases are just provided automatically and in a seamless fashion. Cloud software also enables an easy to use and scale multi-user environment rather than just limiting a solution to a single user or requiring a complex internal network to setup.
Good quality cloud vendors will also protect your data and provide support and onboarding services like training and technical support as part of their subscription costs.
The other benefit is the lack of having to invest in an expensive capital outlay for your software requirements. Since you are essentially “renting” the use of the software, you also don’t have to continue paying if you don’t like your “rental experience”. Typically, you can easily terminate your subscription and not lose your data. Cloud software vendors who do not provide a good service, experience or business value for their users will have a very difficult time keeping customers and growing their own business.
However, back to the concept of free software.
Since cloud software is not something you can download for free, and requires a company (you don’t see just one individual spinning up and providing a cloud solution like you would if creating a basic spreadsheet template), the option to find free software is becoming less of an option in the first place.
Cloud software requires the business providing this service to continuously monitor, manage and improve the software experience, so what options exist in terms of finding something for free?
Most cloud software vendors understand that people are not just going to sign up and start paying for their software. At least, not until they are well enough known in the marketplace. Many vendors will therefore provide some type of a trial option to enable potential customers to try out the software. This may or may not come with a cost. If you like the software, then you continue with the subscription. If you don’t, then you don’t pay for any usage. Some vendors do charge for the option to try out their software and some provide refunds but make it difficult to refund up-front costs.
With some cloud software solutions, you may see an option provided by the vendor for a “free version” for their users. This strategy is similar to the freeware/freemium options and focuses on providing free usage, but with limited capability of to help promote quick growth of their customer base and/or to drive paid-for subscriptions for their higher-level packages. This strategy works well for simple, self-service software applications but becomes more problematic for users trying to work with comprehensive construction estimating and management software.
What you really need
Good cloud-based construction estimating software will have many features and enable multiple users. High-end construction estimating software will also provide the ability for communications with suppliers and customers and create an ecosystem where the contractor can manage their business beyond just estimating. Features such as scheduling, project management, accounting are also tied together to create a comprehensive construction management solution with construction estimating as one of the front-end applications.
So instead of trying to find something for free, try to find the best value software which fits your specific business requirements for the best price. That will be a more successful strategy in the long run.