Free sucks – seriously. I hate it

Why I increasingly feel that free is a falacy and ultimately a bad thing. For all of us.

I have blogged on this topic before but it was back in 2009 and I feel it needs re-visiting. The whole web feels built on the premise that stuff should be free. And if you subscribe to Chris Anderson's view this is a wonderfulworld where it can only get better.

Would you pay to use Facebook? Pay to use Hotmail? Pay to use Twitter? Even pay to search using Google? For a lot of people that idea seems ridiculous. But think back a decade or so and the idea of stuff just being given away free would have seemed equally crazy too. I don't know how we got here. Most people would say it's a pretty great thing. But in many ways I don't like it.

Free in my opinion sucks.

Free means customer service often isn't up to much
So if your Facebook account falls over or your Hotmail stops working, what do you do? Whinge on twitter about it? Struggle with posting the info on a forum and hope someone will help? More likely cross your fingers and wait for it to get fixed. If you were  to pay say $10 a month or whatever, there'd be an immediate loss of revenue if you quit due to the problem and if you told all your mates about it and they started to quit too it would hurt the company's bottom line. You'd have protection under consumer law I'd imagine too. You paid for a service, the provider has an obligation to provide it. If it's free. Well, tough.

Free means you're a guinea pig
The 'forever Beta' disease could be another way to describe this. We never get a finished product. It's always being tested, mucked around with, changed. Just as you thought you knew how to manage your privacy settings on Facebook - whoops they all changed again. I really hate this 'fail fast' crap. It's an excuse for launching tons of junk and hoping some of it sticks. Google in particular does this so much. Remember Wave? Ever even heard of Hotpot? Blah.

Free means it could all get taken away from you
It was delicous a month or two back. The rumours were that Yahoo would sell its smart little web-based bookmarking gizmo and who knew what might happen then. UK readers - do you remember Friendsreunited? Or how about Freeserve? If you're lucky, when the business goes down or runs out of cash it will get picked up again by someone else with deep pockets - which is ultimately what happened with Delicious, thank goodness.

Free means the company you are dealing with is dumb
Of course it's quite easy to get loads of people to try stuff out if it's free. It's crap - but so what, it's free. You can't expect too much from something free now, can you? How did we get to a situation where it was seen as cool to just launch something and have no idea how you'd make money from it? No wonder the financial system went into meltdown a while back if investors were happy to pony up cash for no reason other than 'quite a few people like us'. Dumb.

Free means you will end up paying anyway
The 'fremium model'. What a load of bunk. You get a bit of something in the hope you will then trade up and pay for the real deal. A good example - I've been looking at apps for the iPhone. There are lots of free apps to places - they seem to offer much the same as the ones you pay for. Except you then discover that you've only downloaded an app with next to nothing in it. You have to pay to get the full version. And it constantly bugs you with pop-ups to do so.

Free makes it hard to choose
If you're in the market for say a hotel room in Seville you can make your choice based on cost among other things. You have a budget of around 100 dollars for a night you can immediately discount say 80% of the hotels because they are much more or much less. If everywhere was free - how would you work out which was right for you? You could certainly do it, but it would take much much longer. Price is a valuable yardstick for helping us choose. Right now how do you decide which webmail service to use? Yahoo? Google? Hotmail? I don't know either. And which social platform? Twitter? Facebook? Google +?

Free means they make the rules
Facebook has privacy settings set to 'on' for everything. Do people want that? Seriously? MSN publishes lots of free content - but you have to wade through pages to read it because they need to hang as many ads on as many pages as possible. It's the most hopeless reading experience imaginable. Your data and habits are being quietly mined by companies like Google and Facebook and the powers that be have been cowed into accepting that that's OK because the products you are using are being given to you free. Check out this fascinating piece about Google and the way it makes the rules to ensure it makes money whilst giving the impression its impartial.

Free means the product could suck
In a market where a big corporation with buckets of cash gives things away for free it squashes competition. Free is anti-competitive. There could be thousands of brilliant Facebook-like Social Media platforms, Search Engines, Webmail products and more out there, but we won't ever get to see them because the likes of Google, Microsoft and Facebook give their products away for free so new entrants find it virtually impossible to compete and stay in business. And free content often conforms to this rule. How much spammy crap content clogs up your search results on a daily basis? It looks great in the search results, but click on the link and you find it's a load of waffle.

Free means someone is working for peanuts
This isn't always the case, but often for start-ups trying to compete in the web space (where big corporations are squashing competition by giving stuff away for free) the only thing to do to try and compete is to try and do stuff at virtually no cost too. The number of times I have been approached to write stuff for free or give away my back catalogue for free to new content websites on the vague hope that I might one day make some money from ad revenue or whatever. I just tell people politely that I don't work for free, but doubtless a lot of people trying to get a foothold on the ladder are prepared to do this. My experience is that if you start writing for nothing, peanuts is all you will ever get paid.

What do you think? Ever wished you could pay for something but have to accept a poor quality free thing instead because the market can't provide anything else?


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