Free is never free.

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The iDevice/OS X world is full of free apps. They do all kinds of things from determining the outcome of coin flips to helping you figure out what movie to see.

And you need to start avoiding every one of them.

There are two reasons that you should opt out of “free” apps anytime your finances allow:

1 – They may make money

2 – They may not make money

Both lead to horrible things, and there really isn’t a 3rd option available.

1 – They make money

The business of nearly every app designer is to – somehow – make money from their app. Granted, there are exceptions to this rule, and some truly altruistic app developers out there, but they are extraordinarily rare. In 99 out of 100 apps, the goal is to make the developers money so they can make more apps, retire, take over the world, etc.

The problem with free apps is that you’re not paying for them – so who is? Well, the truth is that they’re making money – just not from you directly. That means that they’re going to make money by targeting advertising, or otherwise selling any information you give the application to the highest bidder (you hope). No matter if it is selling ad space or selling email contact lists, in either case you’re paying for the app with something (your attention or your info) and paying a lot more than the 99 cents it would probably have cost if you just bought the app outright.

Or, the app may make money via micro-purchases for something you need to make the app work – or at least work well. Zynga’s games are a prime example of this. Want to make your farm work better? Give up your friends’ information or pay Zynga to get in-game stuff. Neither option is actually free, as one will alienate your friends and the other lightens your wallet.

Alternately, they could just sell the whole app and all the information it gathered to someone all at once. Facebook acquiring Instagram is a somewhat recent example of this. Now, all that info and all your photos belong to Facebook – no matter what they try to do to gloss it over in the End User License Agreements. So, once again, the app developer has made money from you, even if they didn’t take the cash out of your digital wallet directly.

2 – They may not make money
If an app cannot make money from you, and they cannot or will not make money from ads or other means; then that’s a bigger problem. Apps that make no money can’t fund development. They can’t support their developers and have very little incentive to move the product forward. Many free apps from less than a year ago are already outdated, don’t run on the latest versions of iOS or OS X, or have just disappeared entirely. This means no bug fixes, no support, no viability in the long term at all.

Now, there are indeed some free apps that are not making money but are actively supported and developed. They typically fall into two categories:

1 – Apps supported by in-app upgrades or apps that have both free and paid versions. Instapaper is a great example of this, with versions of the app that are clearly ad-supported and feature-restricted; and others that are add-free and non-restricted. You can (and a great many people do) pay for premium accounts to unlock all the features. This allows the developer to make money and still offer a limited version for free. Granted, the limited version is still not quite “free” – but at least they have a legitimate business plan and are not just farming your email contacts.

2 – Apps that are actually part of a larger company or service that you’re paying for. Your bank, grocery store, gym, and comic-book shop may all have free apps. These apps are paid for by you frequenting those stores, with the apps acting as digital access or storefronts. The app isn’t free, you’re paying for goods and/or services from the company that gives the app away. While those companies are still at risk of being bought out and giving up your info, at least that is not their primary goal in producing and supporting the app in the first place.

So, be wary any time you see a free app. If there’s one that’s 99 cents or two bucks, and you can afford it, then go for that app instead. Or, if you are a customer of a business and they have an app that you’re paying for with your patronage, go for that. Otherwise, the app isn’t really free, and the price you pay can be much higher than you’d ever expect.

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