I'm about to do something that will have more than a few people who know me thrashing around and screaming in horror. I'm replacing a free application with one I'm paying money for.
To be precise, I'm replacing what I use of OpenOffice.org 3.2 with Microsoft Office 2010.
Well, it wasn't like I didn't try.
When I bought Office 2007, I spent the money on Word and Outlook, and used OpenOffice.org (OO for short) as my spreadsheet application. It worked fine, since I wasn't doing anything particularly advanced with Excel in the first place.
Then I tried using OO's Writer as a replacement for Word, and ran into one inadequacy after another.
In its broad outlines, OO is not a bad program. It works decently well for quick-and-dirty word processing, and even some fairly advanced tasks. The devil, as always, is in the details.
Its spellchecker and grammar-checker components were and are terrible; I couldn't even buy better versions of those components.
The UI was antiquated. Even the newest and most performance-optimized builds seemed to lag. Many Office 2007 (and 2003) document features didn't render correctly. The more I dug, the longer the list grew.
Now Office 2010 Home and Business has come along, which includes Excel and OneNote and comes at a price which compares favorably to what I paid for just Word and Outlook together. Office 2010 is around $200, if I order from Amazon.com, and possibly even cheaper elsewhere. (I get even more of a price break if I order a key code without physical media.)
It runs very well indeed, and it includes all the little things about Word that I didn't want to part with -- like, for instance, a context-sensitive spelling and grammar checker.
Sure, OO was and is free. But I'm more than willing to pay money for software that I know is useful. A free version of a not-very-useful program is still a not-very-useful program.
Bringing its pricetag down to zero does not change its native behavior. It simply makes it that much easier to find out whether or not you're going to be happy with it. In an age when you can get a free 15-day trial of everything from MS Office to Photoshop, it's that much less significant.
As for the philosophical value of open source: The fact you can modify the source means nothing to people who barely have enough time in their day to read their email, let alone learn how to program.
People assumed, wrongly, that when faced with something like OO, Microsoft had to give Office away to compete. No, Microsoft didn't have to make Office free; they just had to make the cost low enough that the pain of getting on board wasn't quite so egregious.
You can credit OO for helping bring down Office's list price if you like, but that doesn't make OO any more problematic for me to actually use.
It also didn't change the fact that OO was not supported in a way that enhanced its development. Sun charged for a supported version (StarOffice), but that seemed like the wrong model for a program like that -- it would have been more useful, in my eyes, to adopt an open-core strategy. Give away the basics, charge for the pro-level stuff.
A really good spellchecker and grammar-checker are two things I would have gladly paid for, and would have added immense value to the program. That and having those pieces authored and supported in-house would have meant that much more of my money would have gone back into supporting its development in the first place. (If I keep harping on the spelling/grammar functionality, it's only because they're the best single example of how OO failed to keep me as a user.)
But they didn't do any of that. Or if they did, I never heard about it.