wasting bandwidth since 1999

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.



Learning From Everyone


Only Annoying


  1. Please let us know the outcome of your competitive analysis. I’ve been selling RSS and Google Reader into my tribe of followers for years. I’ve got to give them some alternative, because we are too busy right now to make a major paradigm shift – created by a vendor and not user behavior.

  2. I’m glad people are beginning to realize that good services are worth paying for. See “Don’t be a free user” http://blog.pinboard.in/2011/12/don_t_be_a_free_user/

    My own online product http://www.learnclick.com is also a paid service. Many teachers still believe all the online tools that they use in the classroom should be for free, but the paying customers are all very happy with the service and support they get (free often means bad support).

    BTW, I just signed up as a premium member for http://www.newsblur.com, which is a very good alternative to Google Reader.


  3. Dave

    You’re right about the risks, but I don’t think they are exclusive to “free”. Brick-and-mortar stores are definitely tracking their customers and selling that data. I’ve definitely paid for things that were underpowered, and I’d be willing to say that most paid technology offerings aimed at schools are severely disappointing or outright flawed. Paid products definitely disappear from the market, too: McRib? DLC for games? Support for old versions of software?

    “Free” tends to result in low income and high volume, which, yes, tends to make those other risks more likely…but I don’t intrinsically mistrust free, the same way that I don’t intrinsically mistrust anonymous writings.

    The Google Reader situation is especially frustrating because Reader is a strong platform with die-hard supporters, run by a company with plenty of cash. Google could have gradually transitioned Reader to be ad-supported, or paid, or to connect with their Play/Drive offerings in some profitable way. That seems like the right thing to do — to capitalize on the devoted supporters, using the company’s cash reserves to buy plenty of time for the smoothest transition possible. It didn’t go away because it was free, because cutting loose a devoted community isn’t the best way to shift free to profitable.

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