Condemning Free On Principle

As I have come to learn in the past few months, things in life aren’t simply black and white. Our achievements are measured in how successful we are at understanding and cherishing the various shades of gray.

Free online services fall under such gray area. There is a shared sentiment among independent writers and developers that “free” is inarguably bad as a business model. I have noticed a disturbing trend in the past months – many aren’t even trying (I’m not saying becoming regular users, I’m saying trying) new services because they start out as free, and free is bad. These people are short-sighted.

As writers, when did we stop giving software makers the benefit of the doubt?

Maybe I’m too optimistic. I like to look at innovations positively, and, unfortunately, I have also noticed that writing blog posts with accusatory theories can drive more traffic than someone who hopes for a better future. Good isn’t good enough.

Still, I won’t stop believing the future of technology is incredibly promising. Free services are going to be part of it, albeit with the necessary facets that will ensure consumer software isn’t really free when its creator plans to make a profit. Let me explain.

Pocket was released this morning, and unlike the former Read It Later iOS app, Pocket is free. About that, I wrote:

I’m not of those pundits who are against free or acquisitions on principle; in fact, I do believe some services can only take off and gain millions of users in a relatively short period of time when they are free. Facebook wouldn’t have gotten where it is today had Zuckerberg implemented a monthly fee. Instagram wouldn’t have reached 40 million users. And because Pocket aims at becoming everyone’s de-facto service to save everything for later, it only makes sense to start with free.

Pocket’s Nate Weiner also followed-up with an explanation on his personal blog:

This is a big change to how we’ve operated in the past and I wanted to give some more insight into the decision. Personally, I always like to know how the services I love make money because quite simply: I want to know they will stick around.

I understand that there is a stigma of the Silicon Valley startup with a business plan of “We’ll figure it out later”, and that is not who we are. We decided to make the move to a new revenue model last year and today is just the first step in that process.

Let alone the fact that it’s rare to find CEOs who write in plain and simple English about their intentions (Pocket’s business plan isn’t explicitly mentioned, but you can easily figure it out reading the post), I think there’s a number of wrong assumptions to remark when talking about “free”.

Free isn’t obviously “free” when profit is involved because, unless you’re growing money on a tree, dollars have to come from somewhere. With “big free” services like Google and Facebook, free is paid by ads, which are targeted at users, thus making them the product to sell to advertisers. You may ignore or deeply despise ads – I only want to point out how Facebook still managed to build the world’s de-facto social network that everyone wants to quit and keeps using. Advertisers don’t want to advertise on sloppy services.

And then there’s “freemium”: the basic functionalities of a service are free, but you can unlock extras by paying. This is what many developers – regardless of the platform they choose – are doing these days to:

Sometimes, the free part of freemium has ads. Sometimes it doesn’t. Other times freemium services decide to introduce the “premium” offer later, starting off as completely free. Pocket has clearly decided to reboot as free; I believe extra features will come later as monthly or annual subscriptions, but this is purely based on my speculation.

And now the problem: some people don’t like free on principle. The backgrounds are different, but the core issue is that they are used to one type of business model (the single purchase) and they want every other service to work that way.

How ironic that I’ve read many of these complaints on sites that are, effectively, using a freemium model with ads and premium subscriptions.

But anyway. While the willingness to pay is laudable, some services don’t just work as one-time purchases. I love paying for software. I distrust free-without-ads-forever services and developers of “abandonware” like everyone else does (example). I try to throw in my two-cent suggestions whenever possible. But I also acknowledge that some types of services, in order to hit the mainstream, have to gradually introduce people – it’s not just about the nerds – to the main concept, which has to be free to have the highest exposure and impact.

Again: Facebook, Gmail, Twitter. How many users does that $4.99 app have again? Paying for software doesn’t grant success. And not all “successes” are defined equally.

The “mainstream”, as people who don’t proclame themselves “nerds” are usually referred to, doesn’t like paying for services and ideas they are not familiar with. My dad tells me that, way back in the 40’s, when he was a kid, he used to go watch the first television broadcasts with his family at the local coffee shop. Today, he doesn’t think twice about renewing his SKY subscription. People need to be introduced to new ideas, and today we are fortunate enough to have free online services available on our desks and mobile devices.

Some people often make witty remarks about “growing the userbase, then we’ll figure it out” types of announcements. While I appreciate their entertainment efforts, they’re actually trying to make fun of a universal truth: normal people are reluctant to pay for things they don’t know.

Normal people also don’t buy 40 text editors.

Pocket is the latest service to adopt a free model, and it won’t be the last one. You may be skeptical about its future, or you can be excited about his premise as I am.

Free can work when done right, but of course this isn’t nearly as cool as writing blog posts with “LOL” in it.


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