I knew my post yesterday, about my stance on “free” services, was likely to not go over very well with most people.
I knew that, but that’s not why I posted it.
I wrote that post because it is what I believe and I felt it needed to be said — if for no other reason than to be on record.
As such things do, the post generated a flurry of responses to me, here are some things that were said that I think bear repeating.
@BenjaminBrooks That’s where we disagree. Regular people don’t care about their attention as long as Facebook is free.
— Federico Viticci (@viticci) April 17, 2012
This lead to the normal argument of what “free” means. I say Facebook is not free because: ads distract and vie for attention, and Facebook uses your personal data for profit. The cost to the end user is not free because it is costing you attention and privacy — whether or not you accept that is up to you, but the cost is very real, if unseen. However, if free is simply what you have to pay monetarily to use something, then yes, it is free.
— Ryan Wilson (@adudenamedRyan) April 17, 2012
Exactly, but you need to know this up front (more on this in a bit).
— Greg Pierce (@agiletortoise) April 17, 2012
I’m impressed he fit this notion into 140 characters because it sums up the general misunderstanding on the web. Who is the customer? On this site my readers are (sadly) not my customer, nor are the advertisers. Fusion and The Syndicate are my customers — you the reader need to know that because even if I claim I am not swayed by it, that’s something that you, my user, need to judge for yourself.1
However, Pocket fails because from day one they don’t have the option of paying them for something. They hint that there are greater monetization options coming in the future, but users will kick and scream if their storage gets limited in the future, which is the natural business model that’s coming. It’s Dropbox and Evernote’s business model.
Somers is getting more to the point that I was making at the end of my post yesterday and I want to come back to this notion because Matt Alexander also hits on the same topic from a counter viewpoint:
The presumption — without justification — that a company will hurt you and your interests betrays an infrastructure of fearful thinking. Moreover, it is not in keeping with the nature of the age in which we live.
I think this is where the larger misunderstanding took place. That I somehow think those that choose “free” business models are evil — I don’t think that — I think they are stupid. There’s a difference between the two and I know plenty of swell people that are also stupid — we all do.2
When I ended yesterday’s post I cautioned:
No service can remain free indefinitely and that’s why it is negligent not to question a new free service when it comes out, because “figure it out later” can often end up being something that you, the user, aren’t going to be OK with and that is relevant.
Somers was hitting on this, theorizing that in the case of Pocket they may limit certain aspects that were not previously limited — they may — and that probably would lead to backlash.3 And that is something the user should want to know upfront, because it may change whether they use the service or not. It’s why bait and switch laws are in place across the country — it’s deceitful to know that you will later try to force a customer into a paying customer by enticing them with a free something for a limited time.
I think Alexander assumes that when I made the above point, that I presume all “free” services will eventually be evil. That’s actually not what I was cautioning. Let me restate my caution with a touch more precision.
At some point every service must be paid for in one manner or another. This is true of all free services from Instagram to iCloud. Perhaps Instagram starts flooding your feed with ads, or iCloud requires you to buy the latest gear to be able to use it.
One way or another a free service must financially benefit those that run it, or that service will die.
Therefore, as a user, you need to be OK with the changes that may come, well before those changes occur, because the ramifications of those changes may be significant. You may be forced to pay, or the changes may be such that you no longer want to use the service at all — wishing you had never invested time into learning the service and integrating it into your life.
That’s what I meant when I said: “because “figure it out later” can often end up being something that you, the user, aren’t going to be OK with”.
What happens if you switch all your email correspondence to an iCloud account and next month Apple decides your iCloud account will cost you $99 a year? Ouch.
This is why I believe this debate is important.
To that end I wish my readers were my customers, but that’s another post. ↩
Most of us are just more polite than me and won’t admit someone is stupid. I am an ass, I think we all know this by now. ↩
But I think Somers is wrong about the Dropbox comparison because Dropbox has been limited from day one. It’s always been 2GB, or pay. That’s a sound model — that’s a model that works. That’s not free. ↩