Skip to main content
January 5, 2009

Getting what you pay for in free online services

ESPOO, Finland – I used to be one of those people who would say “you get what you pay for,” and tell folks to quit complaining when one of their “free” online services was having some service issues. Think about it: you are using a service for free and it breaks down. Why should you get mad? You don’t pay anything for it. That makes you a free-loader of some sort, right? Beggars can’t be choosy.

Wrong. And I’ve finally realized why.

The many shades of free.

Recently, I has some issues with a few free online services. Also, I realized how much I use free online services for work and personal life. that got me thinking that there are all sorts of “free” and that in most cases I do pay for the service, though not in a blatant transaction or subscription fee.

An easy example is Google. The services I use from there are free, in that I don’t pay Google a penny of any money to them. But I do pay by using the services, feeding the giant android in the Cloud with behavior, data, and attention.

You must be thinking, “Duh, Charlie, that’s an ad-supported business. What’s so special about that?”

What’s special is that I am a user tied to their business model and as a user, I do pay for the system, as much as if I forked over cash. Hence, I should have a service level any paying customer would demand.

The same goes for a service like Twitter. No, they are not ad-supported as Google is, but there is no doubt that offering a service where the users do not pay a transaction or subscription fee is part of their business plan. OK, so there may be doubts. But the point is, the user pays in other ways that bring the company money.

Paying with blood, sweat, and tears

Companies are not set up to charitably give away a free online service. They have only shifted the cash to another part of the service. And the user is still vital and is still “paying” in some form. In the end, we are important customers for the business and should expect level of service the same as if we were paying with cash.

This issue will only get bigger as we move more of our work and personal life to free online services. “Free,” as in “no cash exchanged,” should not be an excuse for losing user data or breakdowns in service provision. “Free” is quickly becoming the norm, so as users we need to re-evaluate our role in helping “free” providers make money. We do help and that makes us as paying customer. There is no “free.”

So, next time Feedburner stops working or Share on Ovi is inaccessible for a long time, I should be able to complain under regular consumer rules. I should get what I pay for, even in I don’t pay for a service in cash.

What do you think?

Chris Anderson is writing a book called “Free”. Here’s a video from Nokia’s IDEAS Projects where Chris talks about four forms of “free”:

Image from kalandrakas