Fragility of Free

What can happen when you depend on free services and software.

I like to pay for things I use, even if I get no benefit out of paying — I like to pay. It wasn’t always that way for me, as most of my life was years of trying to find, and trying to use, nothing but free software. As such, one of the first Mac apps that I fell in love with was the excellent Quicksilver — a free application launcher and so much more.

I spent untold hours learning how to wrench every last drop of power I could out of the app and thanks to sites like I learned to use the crap out of Quicksilver. I mean I know how to use it — like guru level.

Then, like so many other free apps, Quicksilver died a slow death. ((It has since been reborn, but will never be the same.))

When Quicksilver went away I paid for a version of LaunchBar and moved on with my life. ((I am omitting a passage about tears and other un-manly things here.)) It’s not cheap, at $35, but that money gives the developer a reason to stick with development — it becomes a real business instead of just an elaborate hobby.

I paid for Tweetie and subsequently Tweetie 2 not solely because it was the best Twitter client, but also because I could pay for it and therefore support the development of it. What happened to Tweetie though may be the perfect testament for just how fragile a free app truly is.

When Twitter bought up Tweetie and then rebranded it as Twitter for iPhone all seemed ok as Loren Brichter was staying on board as lead developer. I think the past few weeks have taught us all one lesson — it’s hard to force changes in a free app.

Before Tweetie was free the customers were in charge because Brichter needed those customers to be paying and happy so that he could have a viable business. When it went free — well things changed.

When Twitter introduced the Quickbar — more affectionately known as #dickbar — users revolted at the forced interjection of promoted trends and an object that ‘messed’ with the view in the user’s content stream. Had Twitter for iPhone still been Tweetie and cost the users money I can assure you that Brichter would have removed the Quickbar immediately and would have been very communicative with users about that.

Ratings effect sales more than they affect free downloads for apps.

Instead, Twitter quietly pushed an update that made the Quickbar slightly less annoying. ((I say slightly because it is still ugly as sin. I mean I get that it is a flip clock style — what I don’t get is why then swiping from side to side changes it. That makes no sense and is absurd. If you want to change a flipping interface the last thing you would try is swiping at it. Just silly.)) I think it was at this point that everyone saw the fragility of free as I see it.

The fragility of free is a catchy term that describes what happens when the free money runs out. Or — perhaps more accurately — when the investors/founders/venture capitalists run out of cash, or patience, or both. Because at some point Twitter, and all other companies, have to make the move from ‘charity’ to ‘business’ — or, put another way, they have to make the move from spending tons of money to making slightly more money than they spend.

It’s at this moment that we begin to see the fragilities of the free system. Things that never had ads, get ads — things that were free, now cost a monthly fee. We have all seen it before with hundreds of services — many of which are no longer around.

Again, I like to pay for things and here is why:


When you pay for software/services upfront you know how much it is going to cost right away. That may seem obvious, but imagine if the developers over at the beloved Alfred App decided that the only way they can keep developing is to begin charging for it? Things wouldn’t be so pretty.

What if tomorrow Google decided that they would start charging for Gmail? How much would you be willing to pay — don’t think for one moment that they can’t make that call, they can. You see when a developer sets out to charge from day one they set the price at an amount that will sustain them so long as they get X sales. Most users won’t even get around to using the app until well after it has surpassed X sales — safe to say then that it will be more likely the developer lowers the prices than raises it.

With something like Alfred you have to be concerned that the developer decides that they need money so they will start charging $5 — then that’s not enough so they bump it up to $8, then $10, and so on. The problem is that they don’t want to charge money and they feel bad about it, but they need to charge money. Instead of charging $10 on day one they waited until it was too late.


Sticking with Gmail for another example, imagine if Google decided that Gmail was a money loser and that it was to be shut down. Doesn’t matter what you offer to pay, in a week it’s gone.

This happens with free software and services, sometimes with paid services (but that is far less likely). Sometimes the funding for free just runs out — perhaps it was just someones hobby, a hobby that you depended on — doesn’t matter because it is gone now.


The above two scenarios are perhaps the best ones that a user can face, this last one though is what Twitter currently faces: the we-need-to-make-money-but-still-want-to-be-free situation.

It’s a pain in the ass for users.

Users don’t care whether you are profitable, they only care whether and how your profitability will affect them. With Twitter it seems users will be putting up with only using the official Twitter clients and then on top of that putting up with advertising being forced into their streams.

This, when there are a lot of users screaming that they will pay for the service — just leave the damned thing alone. Unfortunately this is a rather vocal group that is also known as the minority.

I say that this is the worst of the scenarios because it often means death by indecision. Everyone wanting to create something new and great when something old and useful is sitting right there. It’s trying to re-invent the wheel. Twitter’s options are simple: sell user data and information to marketers (not likely), advertise everywhere (seems where they are headed), charge customers (would make the service smaller, but the end users would be loyal and happy).

Again, I would rather pay up front, on day one.

Stabilizing Free

The only free things I like and trust are free things that are trials, or labeled as beta. Everything else should be charging from day one — I don’t mean to get all 37Signals on people here, but they have a good point. What good will Twitter be next month when 20% of the average user’s stream is advertising?

Will I even want to use it?

Will you?

I’d rather pay for the long term survivability and ad-free usage that a monthly fee would fetch.

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