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Does Higher Cost Mean It’s Better?

It’s an old saying… one I heard my parents use often.  And I freely admit that I’ve said it a few times myself.

You get what you pay for!

What does this phrase mean?  The implication is that cost equals quality.  If a thing or a service is inexpensive then the quality is less than a comparable item of higher cost.  And there is certainly truth to this saying for many things.  For example, a $100 desk is likely made of particle board with paper “woodgrain” glued on it where a $1000 desk may be made of solid cherry or oak.  The finish and fit of the components in the cheaper desk are not as polished and precise.  Clearly, the higher cost item in this case is also higher quality.

Equating cost to quality in manufactured items is valid most of the time.  Exceptions tend to be when brand recognition or celebrity association inflate the cost beyond the actual difference in quality which, let’s face it, happens way more than it should in our “follow the cultural zeitgeist” world.

 Inexpensive Online Services Often Provide Quality Results

Another valid use of “you get what you pay for” is service.  You know what I mean.  Go hire someone to paint your house at a rate substantially lower than the industry norm and you will very likely get an inferior result.  The painter is probably inexperienced, inept, or both and will likely cut corners in order to make the job profitable.  Services are an easy win for “you get what you for” since time = money and it normally takes longer to do a good job than a poor one.

So we can all agree on the rationale and validity of this phrase.  But does it hold up for software and online services?  No! Let me say that again with more emphasis… NO!! There are entirely too many instances where free or low-cost tools and services perform as well or better than their more expensive counterparts.  Don’t believe me?  Let’s look at a few examples.

  • Wikipedia – I grew up in a time where it seemed every family I knew had a full set of Encyclopedia Britannica on a bookshelf in their home.  As an adult, I regularly invested in Microsoft Encarta as a digital encyclopedia.  Then along comes wikipedia and turns the encyclopedia world upside-down.  Is it perfect?  Absolutely not!  There are inaccurate entries, fluff, and downright wrong opinions stated as if they were fact.  But the beauty and wonder of wikipedia is that the entire world can edit the entries.  This open system leads to a level of self-correction that is remarkable all by itself.  And this wealth of information is free!
  • GoogleBingWolfram Alpha, and other search engines – Need to know what happened on April 21st, 2020?  For one thing, it is the 60th anniversary of Brasilia replacing Rio de Janeiro as the capital of Brazil.  How do I know?  I just typed the date into Wolfram Alpha and it gave me that little tidbit along with several other data points specific to this date.  Search engines, more than anything else, have changed our society to one of “just in time” knowledge.  In another post, I will talk more on this subject but for now just think on what search engines truly mean.  With the sheer amount of knowledge now available online, a good search engine and reasonable querying can help you answer nearly any factual question.  We literally have the accumulated knowledge of the world at our immediate disposal and guess what, it’s free!
  • Canva, Udutu, EdApp, and other online creation tools – We live in such an exciting time for creatives! There are literally thousands of online tools and mobile apps that let you express yourself however you want: art, writing, music, video and so on. And so many of these tools are free or low-cost! For example, if you have ever created an e-learning course then you will know that most good authoring tools are expensive.  Cheaper alternatives tend to be “lite” or otherwise crippled in features compared to their more costly brethren.  Not so with the online course authoring systems from Udutu and EdApp.  These full-featured online authoring tools match and often beat the competition. And Canva has become the go-to alternative to Photoshop for many artists!
  • MoodleILIASSakai, .LRN, and other open source LMS options – Even more expensive than the authoring tools are learning management systems (LMS).  Licensing, hosting, customization are all costly and while a free LMS doesn’t negate all costs (still need to host and administer), it does greatly reduce the total TCO particularly for small to medium organizations when compared to enterprise LMS offerings from Saba, SumTotal, Plateau, GeoLearning and other major LMS vendors. 
  • OpenOffice.orgAudacityGIMPInkscape, and other open source tools – Speaking of open source, there are a ton of incredible feature-rich free applications out there that offer quality alternatives to their expensive counterparts.  Is GIMP better than Photoshop… or OpenOffice.org better than Microsoft Office… or Inkscape better than Illustrator?  I’m not saying that is or isn’t the case for any of these apps.  But I will say that each of these is absolutely a viable (and FREE!) alternative to the paid option.  And there are so many examples of people creating and using these tools with great success that it is clear the “you get what you pay for” doesn’t apply to open source!
  • Twitter, FacebookYouTubeLinkedInTikTok, and other social media –Social media has transformed the online world from disconnected groups and individuals to a worldwide neighborhood of blogs, videos, wikis, meetups, groups, and more.  Anyone can be an author, poet, musician, artist, designer, or pundit.  This can be frightening, awkward, silly, and bizarre… but it can also be exhilarating, comforting, uplifting, funny, sincere, and inspirational.  And while there are ways to monetize social media, access to it is by and large… free!

Many tools, especially mobile apps, are freemium. Per Wikipedia, freemium is a pricing strategy by which a basic product or service is provided free of charge, but money (a premium) is charged for additional features, services, or virtual (online) or physical (offline) goods that expand the functionality of the free version of the software. Most apps of this nature provide a “pro” version for a one-time fee (or annual subscription) which typically removes any advertising, watermarks, and may offer additional features to the free version. 

As you can readily see, there are plenty of high-quality options that are either free or very low cost. However, a word of caution. Even free tools require an investment of time. And time is precious for most of us so it’s important to spend it wisely on tools that meet YOUR needs rather than attempting to push forward with a tool not optimized for what you need to accomplish. Clearly understand the features a tool must have for your requirements. Otherwise, free may cost you more than paying for a different tool. 

There you go… my rant on quality versus cost.  When it comes to getting what you pay for, technology, open source, and the Internet have completely changed the game. Throw in the proliferation of smartphones and tablets using low-cost/no-cost apps and it’s amazing what you can do on a budget!

What about you?  Do you have an example you’d like to share or an opinion on quality vs cost?  I would love to hear it!

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