Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Why free now probably means free later. Or not.

The Bill
Image by mrmatt via Flickr
During my presentation to the Arizona Association of REALTORS™ last week, one in the crowd of some 200+ asked me a question. I'd been waxing poetically about the crazy world we "digital citizens" inhabit. This was most certainly not speaking to the choir. My audience was mostly people who haven't progressed much beyond email in the digital space. That's why I was invited -- to show them ahem... a simpler way to get into the digital world of 2010. OK, maybe 2007. :)

The question asked is one I get fairly frequently. Apologies to Helen if I mangle the question, but the jist was this:

If we spend all this time signing up for these free services (Google, specifically), what will we do once the company decides to start charging, and these free services are no longer free?

It's a fair question. A completely unfounded one, but fair. Yes, there are plenty of examples of services that start out for free and then change to a paid model. I'm facing this right now with Get Satisfaction, a service I've grown rather attached to over at Podiobooks.com. So I'm forced to pay. Or unplug. But I don't want to unplug... so I'll pay. Not with too much grumbling, as it's a great service.

But please understand that what I'm going through with Get Satisfaction isn't a parallel. Google isn't about to start charging you to use Gmail or use their search engine. It's antithetical to their business model.

Also understand this: you aren't costing Google money when you search or send an email. You are allowing Google to make money. Every search you conduct is another ad impression they can serve, and another chance you might click on a paid ad they serve. Every email you access has ads on the side. Sure, you ignore them almost all the time. But sometimes they catch your eye -- or someone's eye -- and they get clicked on. Money for Google.

So no, Helen. I'm not worried that Google will suddenly start charging for Gmail or even Google Voice, the other service I mentioned in my talk. These tools entangle me with Google, increasing the chance that I'll keep using their services. And letting them keep serving me ads. That I'll mostly ignore. Mostly.

Three things:
  1. The reality is that it's much more complex than I've outlined. But that complexity is for pundits to argue about. When you get to that level... have a good time.
  2. Lots of services do start charging after a time. I said that before, but you probably forgot. Not every service is Google, and you should expect some of the services you grow attached to to start charging. You'll deal with that as it happens. Just like we do.
  3. I'm talking way too much about Google lately. I promise the next post will not be about Google, OK? Thanks for your patience.


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