Free? No thanks… I’d rather pay

You have to admire Conde Nast - launching new magazines in the midst of a recession. So far I've been impressed with the UK version of Wired magazine launched a few months back. The August edition carried two almost contradictory features.

One was an extract from Chris
Anderson's much lauded recent book Free: The Future of a Radical Price

"The web has become the biggest store in history and everything is 100 per cent off." According to the reviews Anderson suggests that we've arrived at a new paradigm. Old models of price and value are being overturned.

Anderson is not saying everything will be free... more that we will value things in different ways. Whilst some things will be given
away, entrepreneurs will find new business models to make money in other ways. So a new band will give its music away for free as it will get pirated anyway. It will charge people to get a limited edition CD case, for tickets to a concert (which they will be keener to see having heard the music
already), a T-shirt etc. 

A few pages earlier in the magazine, a feature about Rupert Murdoch's plans to start charging for content online. Follow the link to read the full story but to summarise;

Evaporating print advertising means income in the newspaper segment of Murdoch's Newscorp empire has plummeted. Obviously Murdoch isn't happy about the way all that 'free' content on-line makes it necessary for him to make his on-line offerings free too. But guess what. Murdoch sees readers taking up the slack by subscribing. No clever new business models... just old school subscriptions. Why? Well, Murdoch's Wall Street Journal (WSJ) has been quietly charging customers for access to some content since 1996. And:

- WSJ has around 90 per cent of the traffic it had before it started charging
"You don’t lose traffic when you charge, if you continue a rigorous effort to let people sample, let some content be free on any given day. You can keep up the same traffic, but your core readers – 10 per cent – will buy it so they never hit a paywall. So it’s not like you flip a switch and either you have [digital] ad revenue or circulation. WSJ has both."

- The cost of getting a print subscriber has gone down
"If you’re giving something away [online], it’s harder to get people to buy the print version. But if you attach a value to the online version then it’s easier to sell the print version and, most importantly, it’s much easier to sell the print version if you bundle the print subscription with an online subscription, which is what the WSJ and FT do."

So... will the on-line future be 'free'? I hope not.

Twitter and Facebook have yet to make any real money. And there are few examples of revolutionary methods of making money on-line. For most of the 'free' gang it's...  advertising... which isn't providing anywhere near enough income to run solid businesses. Yep. I'm on Murdoch's side. I don't believe all the smoke and mirrors.
Ultimately a business has to make money and I think age old business principles will still apply. I'm tired of the hidden
catches, the headline rates and amazing FREE deals that are
meaningless when you read the small print.

Indeed, its obession with 'FREE' means the internet encourages sleight of hand.

I HATE 'free'.

As consumers we need to wake up and realise that 'free' is rarely best. 'Free' usually means:

- You'll get hit for a charge somewhere else along the line
- You'll find the product isn't that great. If someone is giving something away for free, surely that means they can't convince anyone to pay for it?
- You won't appreciate it. Price defines something's worth in surprisingly subtle ways.

Maybe it's a bit generational. There's lots of talk of the current generation of students and schoolkids expecting stuff to be free. As if there's a quantum shift going on. But I'm not sure. (Maybe it's because at that age you have limited cash but plenty of time. So you can sift through the bum stuff and find the genuinely good stuff. As we get older we have more money but far less time. So we are prepared to pay for stuff to save time.)

Personally I don't want something 'free' with a hidden catch or that doesn't work all that well. I'd rather pay a nominal amount to use Twitter, Facebook, Hotmail, Gtalk and the rest and be sure it will work... all the time. Then I won't have to put up with stupid ads which get in the way and slow down the load times of pages. And if something goes wrong, someone will actually be motivated to fix it.

Wouldn't you?

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