The Danger of “The Danger of Free”

by on January 16, 2008 · 4 comments

Alex Iskold has a very interesting post about “The Danger of Free” over at the Read Write Web blog. But I think he overstates the case a bit when he asks “is the concept of free taking us down a dangerous road?” He pretty much answers that question in the affirmative:

Marketers long ago figured out the attractiveness of free. For decades companies have been playing tricks using free to lure naive customers. But recently, our obsession with free has given rise to a new phenomenon – where the customer is never asked to pay. How? Because the business makes their money on advertising. Marketers are happy to pay for access to customers, who in turn love not having to pay. So the web plays the glorious role of middle man. Are we heading into dangerous territory? The paths that we are taking lead to confused customers at best; and monopolistic practices at worst. A culture where consumers think that increasingly more and more services should be free is not healthy.

I’m not so sure. I don’t want the digital generation to grow up thinking everything online is one big free-ride, but do they really think that? They still pay for plenty of stuff, after all. (I wish they’d be willing to pay a little something more than zero for copyrighted content, but that’s another story). Generally speaking, this generation is paying for plenty of gadgets and gizmos (think game consoles and games themselves, or iPhones and other mobile devices, or PCs, etc.)

But what’s so bad about them pushing for more and better services at a lower price, or even no price? They understand there are trade-offs to getting “free” goods or services just like previous generations did when the sat down in front of the boob-tube to watch “free” over-the-air television, or listen to broadcast radio in their cars. As Iskold correctly notes in the conclusion of his essay:

The bottom line is there is no free lunch. When you go on vacation and see a sign that says Free Lunch you know that the timeshare sales pitch is going to accompany it. The free on the web is not free either. We are receiving the services in exchange for our time and attention, in exchange for the opportunity to be advertised to.

Yeah, so what’s the problem again? Most of us understand the trade-offs and that there really are no perfectly free lunches. But the danger of Iskold treating “free” as a problem and going so far as to conclude (incorrectly, I might add) that it leads to “confused customers and monopolistic practices” is that it is just another invitation for government to come and muck things up. Think about it: the logical conclusion of Iskold’s argument is that the government should step in to protect consumers from free goods and services! We truly are a spoiled lot in America.

  • http://www.techliberation.com/ Tim Lee

    Great post, Adam.

  • http://www.techliberation.com/ Tim Lee

    Great post, Adam.

  • chrisw

    I agree that the concept of free web services is dangerous. As a web developer, I have invested years and lots of my own money developing an online content publishing platform aimed at the masses. I intend to charge customers an annual fee to use it. The idea of giving it away for free has been considered but I decided that charging for it was a better option. One company that springs to mind is SmugMug.com – these guys have established a very successful business in a market dominated by a free service – flickr.com . Many people would think that an online photo sharing site where you have to pay is a stupid idea – but SmugMug.com has over 450,000 users – and none of them are using the service for free. Go figure!

  • chrisw

    I agree that the concept of free web services is dangerous. As a web developer, I have invested years and lots of my own money developing an online content publishing platform aimed at the masses. I intend to charge customers an annual fee to use it. The idea of giving it away for free has been considered but I decided that charging for it was a better option. One company that springs to mind is SmugMug.com – these guys have established a very successful business in a market dominated by a free service – flickr.com . Many people would think that an online photo sharing site where you have to pay is a stupid idea – but SmugMug.com has over 450,000 users – and none of them are using the service for free. Go figure!

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