Brand loyalty for free software?

In the last 2+ decades, I have used several paid and free software over the internet.

Email, for instance. After Rocketmail, I moved to Hotmail, Yahoo Mail and finally Gmail and Microsoft Outlook.

With most free tools on the internet, I know that they somehow make it up from users – probably in the form of ads or data harvesting. And most of us have made peace with that over the years that we don’t even question why they are offering a free software.

Recently, 2 online tools that I use every single day, and what I consider indispensable, faced unscheduled downtime. One is Pixlr Editor, and the other is, the last remaining URL shortener.

I used to have a license for Adobe Photoshop once, long ago, but that seemed like an overkill for the amount and kind of everyday picture edits I do on social media. Pixlr Editor works phenomenally well for that need (even though the maximum pixel in their canvas is 4000 – sometimes limiting, but I have learned to work around it!). I use it literally every day, several times. is also something I use every single time. Any and every link I share online (and I share a LOT, across 2 of my blogs and 2 of my Twitter handles, on LinkedIn, Facebook etc.) is through In fact, I always have a bitly links list browser tab open, like Gmail and Google Keep or social networking pages. This is to find the traction on the links I share, to see what’s working and what is not. This is a fundamental lesson I teach people too when it comes to personal branding – to know the kind of effect the links you are sharing is having.

Listen to me speaking more about this part on IVM Podcasts.
Digression ends.

Now, if these tools are free, they have no obligation to let free users know about downtime, scheduled or not. They may choose to, out of sheer decency to their user-base, but they need not either.

And as soon as they go down, I look up on Twitter to see if they are really down (by checking is others are complaining too). And there were tons of complaints.

One thing they both didn’t do well enough was to not announce the service disruption as soon as they found it out. Even if they do not have a ETA for restoring the service, it is simply good practice to tweet it out officially that they are aware of the disruption and are (obviously) doing something about it.

But a larger thought that struck me was why I didn’t choose a paid variant of these free tools. For starters, what I get in the free variant is perfectly fine for my usage – if it was so compelling or limiting, I’d have chosen the paid tier anyway. But the hard truth is that there are perhaps more free tools/alternatives to choose from. They may not be as good as these are (reason for my sticking to them), but they would suffice too, should these brands die, or go fully paid.

I find it a bit sad that even tools I use everyday do not evoke a sense of loyalty or affinity primarily because they are free. (This would be different, for example, if Gmail starts charging for email, because I have given that email address to the world and I wouldn’t want disruption to that access).

When I pay, I start to expect a lot more from them, and loyalty/affinity would be built into that relationship. They also need to do a lot more to keep me paying, and that’s a solid commitment from them to hold on to.

The corollary – if it’s free, the expectations are also low, and hence poor affinity. From a brand building perspective, this is a strange conundrum in the world of free SAAS (Software-As-A-Service).