the Web

The End of Free Internet Services

October 5, 2010

As with many things that I blog about here, a couple of articles and a podcast have come along at once to suggest a change in the air.

This time it’s the end of the expectation of free stuff that we’ve come to love on the Net.

OK, so it’s not the end of them per se, but it won’t be long til they’re all charging for things that at the moment seem impossible to charge for.

There’s a sense of entitlement amongst web users too. There are complaints when adverts are added. The popularity of AdBlocker attests to the fact that people have no problem with removing the money-giving channels on sites which are otherwise free. And why would they?

And the immediate reaction to any suggestion that a free service will start charging runs along the lines of: “well, they’re going to lose all their customers and go bust.” “There’ll be no users in a year’s time”.

But as Xmarks (formerly Foxmarks) has recently found out, you can’t give it away forever. All those users cost you money, and it’s very hard to generate cash if you’ve got something so great precisely because it works subtly in the background.

But what Xmarks is also revealing is the number of people who would be willing to pay. There’s a Pledgebank page now which states that if enough people (100,000) pledge to pay, then the service will resume and start charging. I’ve pledged, and if you’ve used the service, I wouldn’t be surprised if you’ve thought about it too.

It may be that the small number who would pay would not be enough to keep it going, and as I’ve already said, the amount of people who would leave Twitter and Facebook if they started charging might well be catastrophic from this point in time.

But what about if these sites charged from the beginning? OK, no one would join. But what if ALL sites charged from the beginning? What if it became obvious that the only way to build a quality many-user service which can’t rely on adverts (Twitter, XMarks, Delicious – in fact anything where plugins or third party software are key) is to charge up front? If this were the norm, rather than the exception, then fewer services would be doomed from the start (I’m looking at you MySpace, and you have adverts).

Fewer people = better community?

But then wouldn’t we see the end of the massively social Facebooks and Twitters of the world? Places where everyone is guaranteed to be there, or can jump straight in whenever if they weren’t?

As in many market-based systems, the services would be populated by only those who wished to be there. Who really wished to be there, and were in it for the long haul.

OK, so uptake would be more difficult to spark, but a free beta period, plus free trials for all new users, would keep a kernel of this alive. Perhaps it would be free of the 50Cents of the world, and the Henry VIIIs and the Samuel Pepys’, and indeed the museums and galleries, and perhaps new paradigms of communication would never appear in such a deluge as social media has been.

But in those systems which survived, we would have a much more stable ecosystem and the flooding of people to the first service would not happen. And I think that would be better in the long run, for example in terms of competition. It might even mean that non-interoperable walled gardens like Facebook could not build up.

If the world was made up of a dozen or more similar yet smaller social networks, the pressure to intercommunicate would surely be irresistable. And the networks to first get together in this way would be the best places for new customers to go. So no more lock-in.

Open Source Software?

The end of free services

What I think we’ll see, perhaps sporadically at first, is the rise of the premium paid-for service, with free trials instead of a Freemium model (although I think Freemium will survive in the relevant places).

These services will be honest from the start: you will have to pay, but we’re more likely to stick around. and you won’t have to put up with adverts. Ever.

The services will be used by people who have seen that they are useful (in a beta period for the early adopters, or a mixture of the free trial and friend’s recommendations).

It’s more of a blind hope that these will be smaller, more varied and yet interoperable services (like, say, WordPress: self-hosted or third-party options, with excellent export tools) where you can socialise with friends whatever system or network they’re on.

There is a role for free on the Internet, but I think that for better or worse the days of massive free services are numbered. I hope that the next generation turn out for the best.