On The Hazards of Free

free stuff

In the past week or so, we have a few more examples of why it may not be a good idea to depend on free.

The first involves Padlet, a service that began about six years ago under the name Wallwisher. Padlet allows users to create a virtual bulletin board and then include others as collaborators. It was enthusiastically adopted by many teachers for instructional use, as well as by many of us who did professional development activities.

The service was attractive because it was relatively easy to use and, of course, the account was free. At least the basic version was free, which means someone had to be paying the server bills.

Padlet is one of many web-based services struggling to succeed using a “freemium” business model. Under that concept, a company makes money (or tries to) from the relatively small part of the user base who are willing to pay for advanced features. It’s a tricky balancing act trying to attract enough “premium” users while not giving away too much value at the free level.

This week Padlet decided they need to rebalance and announced a change to their pricing structure that removes some of that free-level value. The new model severely limits the number of Padlets that could be created by free users and, as you might expect, many of them were not happy.

Then there was another big piece of edtech news that didn’t get the same degree of Twitter coverage but still illustrates the problem with free.

Edmodo, a popular system for building communities founded in 2008 as a “Facebook for education”, was sold to a Chinese company. Their service was also free, at first, and teachers flocked to it, growing to more than 90 million users around the world.

Although Edmodo was able to raise money from investors, they never found a model that could sustain the company for the long term. The question now is how the new owners will change the service to recover their purchase price and provide an income stream. Whatever they decide will likely not be popular with users who have become accustomed to free.

Finally, there was one more reminder about the problem with free that landed in my email box. The message came from the CEO of Noosfeer, letting me know that the service will be “closing its doors to the general public” at the end of the month.

Yeah, I didn’t recognize the name either. Or remember having an account.

According to the website, Noosfeer is (soon to be was) a “content reader and aggregator”, evidently founded around four years ago. It sounds like something I would have wanted to try. I’ve opened a lot of accounts over the years. And forgotten about most when they didn’t fit my needs.

Anyway, this blip, along with the higher profile changes to Padlet and Edmodo are just the latest reminders that free is not a sustainable business model. Just don’t be surprised when “free” changes in a way you may not like. Or disappears.


The photo, by Frank Hebbert, was posted on Flickr and is used under a Creative Commons license.

Just the Cool Stuff, Please

Warning: early morning, barely edited, snark ahead.

Mixed in with all the other lists from the previous year, we find EdSurge’s Top Ten S’Cool Tools of 2016. Top ten cool tools for school, get it?

Anyway, the people at EdSurge1 don’t explain why these web services are the best of the year or by what measure they declare them to be the most popular of the more than 300 or so “showcased” in their weekly newsletter last year. But all that doesn’t matter, it’s a list. Let’s just get to it.

Number 10, a Jeopardy game. But this is a website so you don’t need one of the many freely available templates that have been around starting two days after PowerPoint was released.

Three of these top tools allow students to search census data, Wikipedia (for maps), and Creative Commons licensed photos. One question. Why aren’t we teaching students to responsibly search for this material on their own? Never mind, I’ve probably heard all the reasons – no time, students getting “off track”, they might find something INAPPROPRIATE!!, etc.

Two of the sites listed – one a “library of open educational resources with curated curriculum collections” and “a crowdsourced map and calendar of education events” – are really for teachers, not students. 161 education events in just the next 8 months? Really?

The only resource on the list that even sounds interesting is an app that uses the sensors built into most modern smartphones – accelerometer, gyroscope and magnetometer – to perform physics experiments. But haven’t we seen that before?

However, considering all this coolness is free, don’t get too attached. Free is a crappy business model for the long term health of something you rely on, in the classroom or otherwise.

Paid Also Has It’s Perils

Last month I ranted in this space about the perils of depending on free. Free software, free web services with no obvious means of support that could disappear or change in an instant.

More than a few friends and colleagues were quick to point out that paying for the tools you depend on didn’t necessarily guarantee they would always be available, or that they wouldn’t be altered in some negative way. Very true. And the past few weeks have delivered two warning signs to support their caution.

In the first case, about a month ago Yahoo was sold to Verizon. Now Yahoo (I can’t bring myself to include the !) has been largely irrelevant to many of us for most of a decade. At the end of the previous century they were the center of the web and pretty much everyone used their directory. But now I really don’t care what the new owners do with almost all the pieces. Except for Flickr, the classic photo sharing site.

I’ve been posting my pictures on Flickr since 2005 (a few months before Yahoo bought it from the founders) and a paid Pro member for much of that time. For most of it’s life, Flickr had an active community of interesting photographers, most of whom were committed to sharing their images. I first learned about Creative Commons from people on Flickr.

Having a Pro account offered several useful features, including greater upload allowances and, later, no advertising. Today there’s a different set of Pro tools that make paying $25 a year still a good value. But, although paying for Pro also offers the illusion of stability, I doubt there were enough of us to make a profit for Yahoo.

It’s too soon to know what Verizon will do with that little corner of Yahoo but I’m not confident Flickr will survive another two years. At least not in a form I will want to use. So, I’m scanning for another web space that makes it easy to store and share my pictures. Anyone want to weigh in on SmugMug? Something else?

Then last week comes the news that Instapaper was purchased by Pinterest.

Instapaper is a “read later” service that has been a core part of my daily workflow for many years. It allows me to capture web articles from a browser or multiple mobile apps for later review, without ads and other cruft, on phone or tablet. In addition to the convenience of having a good reading list anywhere, I also use Instapaper to gather posts I might want to use for PD sessions or for posts here, with tools for annotating the text.

As with Flickr, Instapaper works on a “freemium” model where paying customers are supposed to generate enough revenue to cover a far larger group using the free version and make a profit. I’ve been a paying Instapaper Premium member for many years, both for the additional features and again for the illusion (probably misguided) that this approach would produce stability and longevity.

So we also watch to see what Pinterest plans to do with their new acquisition. At least Instapaper seems a little better fit with their new parent company than does Flickr in a mega telecom company like Verizon. I expect they’ll try to make it part of their efforts to compete with Google in selling ads.

Anyway, I’m gradually learning my lessons when it comes to working on the web. You can’t trust free but there’s also some risk of disappearing/changing product for paying customers. Ok, Evernote, what news do you have for me?

You Can’t Depend on Free

While I was away at ISTE, Evernote, the online note taking service, announced the unthinkable: they reduced the functionality of their free service. Among other alterations to the free tier, users may now access their notes on only two devices, instead of on as many as they could carry previously.2

Horrors!

I learned about the changes to Evernote by overhearing a conversation in the Blogger’s Cafe at the conference. Several members of the group sitting behind me were not at all happy, complaining that Evernote was only trying to force them into one of the paid tiers. They vowed to move to something better (which probably meant something also free).

Ok, this kind of change is not fun. But it’s also a good example of what I’ve said before: you can’t depend on free.

It’s very possible the people on which I was eavesdropping will move to another notetaking application and be disappointed by it at some time in the future. The developers will also change the functionality. Or begin charging for some features, maybe the whole thing. Or the product will disappear entirely when they fail to make money on the venture.

I suppose I’m the one who really has the right to gripe about Evernote’s announcement since they also raised prices for those of us who actually pay for the service. But I’m not going to complain. And I certainly won’t be looking at alternatives. This is a tool I use every day and depend on to keep my information life straight. Why wouldn’t I pay a reasonable amount for that? 2

In the end, a large part of the blame for the grumbling I heard in the Cafe lies with many of the vendors exhibiting at ISTE themselves. Over many years they have addicted educators to free or absurdly cheap, as in the case of most mobile apps, software, without making it plain that free is not a sustainable business model.

On this matter of educators paying for good software, I agree with Gary Stager: pay now or pay later.3

Software does not grow on trees. It is created by artists, programmers, writers, designers, and engineers who need and deserve to feed their families, just like the humble teacher. The continuous devaluing of software, along with other media, profits no one in the short-term and giant corporations in the long-run. This phenomena not only harms the earning potential of creators, but ensures that educators will be deprived of high quality tools and materials. Sorry, but you get what you pay for.

I know what you’re thinking. We’re just poor teachers. Our budgets are slashed to the bone. We fundraise for crayons. Software is ephemeral. We should not have to pay for it like when we happily purchase “real” things; flash cards, interactive white boards, or that hall pass timer that reminds kids to poop faster.

I must have missed that poop faster app. Is it free?

A Delicious Example

Speaking of the need to be cautious of free stuff, as in a recent post, here’s an excellent example of why.

It’s called Delicious, and some of you old timers may remember it being one of the original web-based utilities for syncing and managing your bookmarks online. Back when bookmarks were actually a thing, in the early Google, pre-smartphone age.

In 2003, Delicious was a hip startup and got some big financing from a high profile venture fund and Amazon soon after going online. Adding to the hipness, they used a very funky, hard to type, address: del.icio.us. But the site did make it very easy to take all those links that were stacked in your browser and made them available from any computer. As an added bonus, Delicious was “social”, meaning you could share the resources you found and follow the links saved by others.

About two years later the company was bought by Yahoo! (back when that ! was not completely ironic), making everyone involved lots of money, and the service continued to grow and improve for the next few years. And it was still free, with every feature available to all. No “premium”, no “pro”.

Things started downhill a few years later as Yahoo began losing relevance almost as fast as it’s stock price was falling and in 2011 Delicious was sold to the guys who started YouTube (they still had some of the $1.65 billion in Google money to play with). Three years later, it was sold again. And early this year, sold again.

All this churn, of course, was largely caused by the fact that Delicious was free, and each successive owner couldn’t figure out how to make a profit by giving stuff away (or how to persuade users to begin paying for previously free stuff). At some point, one of them added advertising to the site, along with paid accounts that offered little more than relief from the ads. More importantly, the functionality of the site stagnated and declined. Plus the current owners, for some unknown reason, have decided to return the URL to the original mess: del.icio.us.

Also somewhere in the past few years of it’s history, I finally gave up on Delicious. I was one of those original users more than ten years ago, one who stuck with the service for most of it’s life. Even though I was very aware that making a free application with no visible business model a major part of my information workflow, carries a lot of risk.

Back when rumors had Yahoo planning to shut down Delicious, I moved everything to a paid service called Pinboard and posted to both for a while (made possible by IFTTT). But now it’s time to make a clean break with Delicious and review the first lesson of free: sometimes not paying can cost a great deal. Time, effort, and annoyance.