Why I Don’t Like Free

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not all that different from most others when it comes to someone buying me lunch. And I’ve certainly collected my share of conference tchotchkes over the years.

But I’ve also been around long enough to have learned that free seldom comes without a price, especially in this digital life. That point was driven home this week when Google announced the death of Reader, their RSS aggregator and a service I have relied on every day for many years.

When it comes to free, whether it’s hardware, software, or services, there are basically three ways you wind up paying.

One is through advertising, which is what you get with “free” search, “free” social networking sites, apps, video, and more. The payment comes in the form of clutter, distraction, and that nagging suspicion that you’re being tracked (likely you are). Or they directly connect your content to the advertising. (Ask the users of Instagram how that feels.) The saying goes that if you’re not paying for it, you’re the product, not the customer.

Another way free can cost you comes in the form of underpowered software and services. The description looks like what you need but you eventually discover that the no-cost version doesn’t do what you need it to do and to get the functionality you were promised, there’s either a paid version or the newly fashionable “in-app purchases” to bring it up to speed.

Finally, we have the cost that Google is now extracting from many of us: the product or service disappears. If the developer isn’t making money from either you or advertisers, they don’t have a lot of incentive to continue developing and improving their creation. Or continuing to make it available at all.

So now I will be paying for the years of free functionality provided by Google Reader in the form of spending my time looking for good alternatives. (So much for don’t be evil.)

And worrying about the possible fate of Delicious, another service with no apparent business plan that has also become a cornerstone of my information life. Maybe I’ll be proactive and take another look at Pinboard.