Who decided online should be free? close

David Hart
David Hart
In It's a Random World, Musings, Apps
19th September 2013
Who decided online should be free?

In July this year, we re-released our Twitter alert service, Twilert, as a subscription-based tool, having previously run it for a few years as a free service. Broadly, the response from people has been positive. Possibly this is because a lot of our users work in the same industry as us and recognise the economic reality of running a software service. But inevitably we had the odd moan. Here is a great example:

“I have been using Twilert for a long time now and it has been a useful tool, however in 14 days time I will unfortunately be ceasing to use Twilert as I find a charge of $9 a month for a notification every 3 hours to be unacceptable. I need real-time results and I refuse to pay $20 for this service.

A shame that you have implemented charges - this will be the end to Twilert as we know it.”

And, although this is fairly rare, it got me thinking about the odd, yet unwaivering belief that if you provide a service online and you charge for it, you’re being a little bit of a grubby profiteer. Just read the email again… this guy believes that us providing him a service that constantly monitors Twitter for him for a cost of around 30c or 20p a day is “unacceptable”. The fact that he finds the tool useful and has had it for free for a long time counts for nothing. He feels that we’ve somehow ruined something that was good by asking him to pay for it. And he makes no acknowledgement that for us to create and host and deliver this service day-in and day-out, might actually cost us something, too. In short, his assertion is that we’ve done something wrong.

Another response, after his free trial (that he’d signed up to) had expired and he’d received an email explaining we were moving him to the basic (free) option of 1 alert per day was more direct:

“Fuck you!!!!!!!”

When we followed it up, the writer explained that our costs were “outrageous” and that (presumably as some sort of punishment) he’d take his (free) custom elsewhere.

The reason this is so odd is because I don’t see anywhere else in the real world where people get criticised for expecting to be paid for their efforts. How many of us work for free? I don’t, I bet you don’t and I would hazard a guess that the author of that email doesn’t, either.

Free trial is fine, or buy one get one free, or try before you buy – because they all assume that ultimately some form of payment is expected if you want to continue to use it. But if you joined a gym and weren’t charged for 2 or 3 years, you’d question how this would be possible. If your local restaurant served you food every night and never asked for a dime, you’d maybe feel like something was awry. If your accountant or your lawyer never sent you a bill for the work they did for you, you might suspect that their accounts department was badly run. Yet, somehow when someone produces software or content online, there’s still a lingering hope that you might end up getting it for free.

I think to understand this we need to consider two things: firstly, the growth of the internet, which to start with was a kind of side-show and something that companies ‘needed to get’ without really understanding what they might ultimately get out of it. All the tools we were using online: Google, Hotmail, Instant Messenger were all free to use. If you were a newspaper, you stuck content online and maybe you had a bit of advertising and you just hoped that people would still walk into the shop and pick up a physical copy of the paper. If you were a consultancy, maybe you gave away some of your IP by creating some thought-pieces that showed potential clients just how clever you were. Brands created simple flash-based games that they gave way for free in the hope that they would go viral and provide a cost-effective alternative to paying for advertising to raise awareness. All this paved the way to an expectation that if it was online then it was free. Even if that content cost tens of thousands of pounds to produce, it was a marketing cost, justified by a more tangible return down the line.

I think the second is the evolution of the Open Source movement in software. The idea that strangers from around the world all work on something for free for the greater good is something truly commendable. Can you imagine many other industries where people are so happy to share and help their competitors for free? Software types are often driven by learning and self-improvement as much as by money and so you can see how this has evolved. But, of course it isn’t entirely altruistic: the expectation is that by doing this you raise your profile and ultimately win work, and that the work that you do is better as a result of thousands of people all contributing to improving the code. But the side-effect of Open Source is a perception that good stuff can be had for free. Clients often stipulate that they want an Open Source solution for their website: not because they think the software will necessarily be better than an off-the-shelf licenced product, but because they can avoid paying the licence fees of an off-the-shelf product and the support from a global community of developers will be as good if not better. We happen to agree with this sentiment and so actually contribute to the notion that powerful software needn’t cost anything to use.

The emergence of mobile apps has changed the landscape considerably. I hate the term ‘disruption’ when used to describe a lame idea to change the way people buy toothbrushes or something, but buying apps for your phone really did disrupt the way we think about the value of digital content and products. Being able to make micro-payments through your phone and be able to instantly gain access made people consider that maybe £1.99 for a game that they could play anywhere wasn’t so unreasonable.

Anyway, back to Twilert. The only way we were able to deliver the service for free for so long is because we have another business (our agency), who was funding it. You may ask why we did this for free for so long – the answer is really lack of time and focus to make the investment that would let us take payments for the service. In the end, Twitter forced our hand by deprecating the API that we had previously relied on.

Fortunately, switching off the free service was the best thing we ever did. We had a decent proportion of existing users willing to pay for it and month on month growth has exceeded our initial forecasts. It seems that if you provide people with something that they value, then in the main, they are prepared to pay for it. But nevertheless, there will remain for a while longer, an underlying feeling among some people that when it comes to something being online, we have an innate right to benefit from the efforts of others, without paying them for their blood, sweat and tears.