Skeptical of Free

In the tech world I see three basic categories for “stuff”:

  1. “Stuff” you pay for
  2. “Stuff” you don’t pay for
  3. “Stuff” that is open

Item 1 and 3 I tend to gravitate towards. For the first one, I feel like I have at least a little bit to do with its longevity and that the company or person at least has some motivation to treat me, the customer right. I paid them, they need me to do that and to get other people to pay as well.

“Stuff” that falls into Category 1 include Instapaper, Harvest, Tweetbot, my Apple stuff, Reeder, Textmate, etc.

I also trend toward the third category as well, mainly when it has to do with my development environment and the tools and libraries that I use. In this case, the person (or persons) was “scratching their own itch” and a community has grown up around this thing where there are a bunch of people scratching itches and hopefully some of those itches I might need scratched … well, this fell apart a long time ago.

‘Stuff” that falls into Category 3 includes (but is not limited to) Ruby on Rails, Ruby, WordPress, Apache, Ubuntu, Vim, etc.

I don’t want to come out too harshly against the second group here, but I am increasingly skeptical of that “stuff” that I don’t have to pay for or that isn’t open … or at least that I’m not explicitly paying for with my own money or that isn’t completely open source.

“Stuff” in Category 3 would include (but once again is not limited to) Facebook, Google Search, Google Apps (and Gmail, and most Google services), Twitter, etc.

It’s not that they are not good services (even though I have my gripes with Gmail and Google Apps at the moment), it is that I am not sure what value I actually have to Google. Am I a valued customer or am I something they are looking to monetize. It seems that most of the “whiz bang” startups at the moment run into the same issue: they get a ton of users and then need to “monetize” those users somehow.

The easy, no thought, no-one-gets-fired-for-choosing-IBM decision is to slap ads on it and then increasingly try and leverage the data you have on the users.

Perhaps the simplest, most forgotten way is to build something that is worth paying for in the first place!

Google garners something close to 95% of its revenue from ads. That’s an icky number to me, but I’m a strange person. If a company is that reliant on a single revenue source, what happens if that source “dries up”? I don’t know what Google will do when it happens (or if it does), but it will be interesting to find out.

I am more comfortable paying for something. That might make me weird, but I’m very skeptical of free.