Free FTP Clients – Why Do They Want to Be Free?

Free FTP ClientsIn the mid-1990’s, there were three things you needed to get on the Internet from your Windows desktop.  1) A Trumpet WinSock to get TCP/IP working through your modem.  2) Netscape Navigator to surf the web and find files.  3) WS_FTP LE to upload and download files through FTP sites.

For years, WS_FTP’s hold on the FTP client marketplace was nearly insurmountable.  Ipswitch’s free WS_FTP LE (or “light edition”) was used by tens of millions of people, and its “Professional” edition converted a fair number of those to paying customers.   However, in 2004 Ipswitch took its wildly popular WS_FTP LE edition off the market and replaced it with WS_FTP Home – a paid edition with essentially the same features.

Bullet, Meet Foot

The timing of the move couldn’t be worse.  In late 2003 a brash new FTP client called FileZilla was fresh off a win as SourceForge’s project of the month and was on pace to pick up more than a million new users a year.  Like WS_FTP LE it was free, but it came with unlimited features and no pressure to upgrade.

While Ipswitch was engaged in foot-shooting in the educational, government and other communities, FileZilla’s popularity continued to surge.   Today, Alexa lists FileZilla as the #4,678th most-visited site in the world, while Ipswitch’s File Transfer division (which includes several other brands besides WS_FTP) is now just #204,992nd.

Around 2010 I worked with a couple of like-minded people at Ipswitch to bring WS_FTP LE back, but has been buried on its corporate parent’s site, and still doesn’t have the ability to connect to both FTPS and SFTP servers like almost every other free FTP client does.   Like the doomed WS_FTP Home, WS_FTP LE can still be upgraded to WS_FTP Professional, but FileZilla’s headlock on mindshare continued unabated.

“Big Three” Professional FTP Clients?

By 2011 I had moved on from Ipswitch to RhinoSoft.  RhinoSoft primarily attracted me because its Serv-U FTP server was years ahead of WS_FTP in both features and architecture (i.e., development on Serv-U was faster, cheaper and less error-prone than it was on  WS_FTP Server), and was poised to move into the managed file transfer industry with the right guidance.   But RhinoSoft also had an FTP client in development whose features would be on par if not better than WS_FTP Professional and CuteFTP Professional, both of which had essentially been put out to pasture.

The plan here was to elevate RhinoSoft’s FTP Voyager FTP client into deployments and conversations about the “big two” professional FTP clients (WS_FTP and CuteFTP): the only two that seemed to justify their more-than-$60 price in the open market, and then provide similar features at a 20-30% discount.  When SolarWinds acquired RhinoSoft in late 2012, they took the plan one step further: re-releasing FTP Voyager as a free FTP client, and not worrying about trying to up-convert free FTP client customers into the dying market that was paid FTP clients.

Any Other Free FTP Clients You’d Like to Cover?

One of the early tactics we used to market the managed file transfer software I wrote (when it had no-to-low marketing budget) in the mid-2000’s was to give away a free command-line FTPS client written by Mark Riordan called MOVEit Freely.  While the total market of FTPS command-line users was small compared to GUI desktop users, we found that users of our secure command-line utility were disproportionally likely to also be interested in managed file transfer systems.  With that in mind, we included a MOVEit sales PDF in the installation and, for a time, realized something like 10-15% of our total leads (and a bit higher by revenue) from the distribution of this free client alone.

A secondary goal of releasing MOVEit Freely as free FTPS client was to reinforce the notion that people should be able to get secure protocols for free…and drain the profits away from people selling “professional” FTP clients to get that one feature.

Is There Any Hope for Paid FTP Clients?

Now we come to my deepest and darkest confession.  I’ve been programming or consulting now for about 20 years and in that time I’ve purchased or specified the purchase of FTP servers from eight different companies.  However, I’ve never purchased or specified the purchase of any desktop FTP client for anyone.

The idea that you need to pay for an FTP client to get a secure protocol died as soon as HTTPS was added to Internet Explorer.  And programs like FileZilla, FireFTP, SolarWinds’ FTP Voyager, MOVEit Freely and many others exist to ensure that the most individuals need to pay to transfer files securely…is nothing.

What About Managed File Transfer “FTP Clients”?

All of the clients I’ve covered so far have one thing in common.  They are either meant to be part of a manual transfer, such as dragging-and-dropping files from Windows Explorer to an FTP server, or part of a scripted transfer.  Scripted transfers come close to the scheduled automation we expect to see in managed file transfers, but they lack the coordination of multiple, simultaneous transfers, the automatic retries (that thankfully minimize human interference) and the alerts to call in the cavalry if SLAs are about to be missed.

Those last two points bear repeating since we know secure file transfer is free.   The main reasons companies buy managed file transfer solutions are to reduce cost (e.g., less humans involved in the transmissions) and reduce risk (e.g., increase reliability and watch out for missed deadlines).   Fortunately for the five- and six-figure solutions in our industry, the value of reducing cost and risk remains high, especially when good managed file transfer means preserving multi-billion dollar relationships between global entities.   The question for people like me is whether or not four-figure (or free?) solutions will eventually chip managed file transfer margins down to those of paid FTP clients.  Who knows – could it happen?

About Jonathan Lampe

Andy White and I started File Transfer Consulting in 2011 to solve secure file transfer and managed file transfer issues through strategic analysis, training, integration and custom development. Our unique approach allows us to address complicated issues like no one else.

Before FTC I created and then led the development of Ipswitch's MOVEit managed file transfer software for ten exciting years, including three as VP for R&D and Product Management at Ipswitch (WS_FTP, MessageWay and hosted services). I also served for VP for Product Management for RhinoSoft (Serv-U), where I guided the development of managed file capabilities and marketing that led to its eventual sale to SolarWinds.

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