No such thing as a free lunch, despite what Wired says

The cover story of a recent issue of Wired magazine holds forth the idea that the Next Big Thing in business will be to sell products and services for $0.00, i.e., FREE. They don’t necessarily mean the cross-subsidized “free” that was pioneered by Gillette razors, giving away the razor and selling the blades at a higher cost, although maybe it’s not really so different.

Assuming you’re a consumer of such “free” services, you had better be prepared to get what you pay for. Sales/PR/marketing consultant Thom Singer describes getting shut out of his free blog by a spam-blocker for several days:

while has been great, it is a free service, and free services have limited access to any human customer service and support

That’s one of the problems with free. Until computer applications get so good that they can provide customer service for a lower cost, if your business relies on a service, it’s best to go with the service that costs a bit more than free, if you get to talk to a (hopefully helpful and competent) customer support person.

Another problem with free or even low-cost options in technology is your limited ability to customize your users’ experience. Of course, Web applications are getting better at customization, fortunately. But depending on your business needs and the expectations of your client base, you may be better served by spending the money to get a custom Web site or database or whatever tool you need. I worked for an organization whose constituent base and marketing managers wanted highly customized event registration, database-driven tools, and a social network that integrates with other social networks (something that barely even exists, although data portability will hopefully be changing that soon). They complained vociferously about the existing system, hosted by a third-party ASP. Come to find out, the ASP was receiving the equivalent of the salary of one junior Web developer for the annual service fee. Again, you get what you pay for! The highly customized solution could be built, but it would take a much larger investment.

And that’s not even getting into the problem of externalities – for example, what is the social and environmental cost of these free products and services? Because transistors and computer components can be made in China so cheaply, we have increased computing power. We’ve all read the stories about human rights, use of lead in toys, and poison pet food and know that maybe cheap products from China isn’t the best thing for us, perhaps.

Of course, just because you pay for a product or service doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll get the absolute best experience, but you can now get revenge on the Internet (a subject for another post!) and you may have more legal options.

Enjoy your free lunch now, but know that someone is paying for it!


2 comments so far

  1. Chris Moran on

    Nice writing style. Looking forward to reading more from you.

    Chris Moran

  2. Nathan Bowers on

    Other costs of “free” things: Opportunity Cost of time and attention. Anderson is really talking more about “soft” goods like time and information finally becoming more valuable than atoms, but I guess “FREE!” makes for better headlines.

    Huh, I wonder if that uppercase free will make it past Akismet.

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