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Will everything on the web one day be free?

I ask this question because I think we may well be inching closer to a point where lots of web services will be free. I say free, but what I really mean is advert-supported. But that’s still free, isn’t it?

I thought about making this into a huge analysis of a possible future free web, but I think that it functions just as well as a Q&A session, pulling in opinions from around the known ‘blogosphere.

So the question was: will everything on the web be free? And could you give me 3 reasons why this might or might not happen.

The obstacles and challenges faced by a free web

Before we delve right into the wonderful, prompt and often quite detailed feedback I got from fellow ‘bloggers, let me first qualify one reason why a freer web might be some way off, as enthusiastically expounded upon by Roger Parloff, Fortune senior editor:

“Free software is great, and corporate America loves it. It’s often high-quality stuff that can be downloaded free off the Internet and then copied at will. It’s versatile – it can be customized to perform almost any large-scale computing task – and it’s blessedly crash-resistant.

A broad community of developers, from individuals to large companies like IBM, is constantly working to improve it and introduce new features. No wonder the business world has embraced it so enthusiastically…”

All except Microsoft, that is.

“Microsoft claims that free software like Linux, which runs a big chunk of corporate America, violates 235 of its patents. It wants royalties from distributors and users. Users like you, maybe. Fortune’s Roger Parloff reports.”

To some, this is an impassable obstacle, while to others, this is an inevitability of business. A challenge, if you will.

Microsoft is bleeding out into that big pond they’ve presided over for so long, and this big fish is getting nibbled away at by all the little fish.

Kicking off our guest commentaries is Brian Heys, commentator on blogging, social media, startups, and internet news who writes:

“I can think of two reasons why I don’t think everything will be free online: 1. web users are becoming increasingly ad-blind; 2. many online businesses are already adopting subscription-based models for premium services.”

And it’s ad-blindness that attacks at the very heart of a key driver of web traffic monetization:

“Text-only ads might continue to work better than traditional graphics-based ads for some time to come. Web users have long exhibited strong banner blindness and avoid anything that looks like an advertisement.”

Ask yourself a simple question: when was the last time you clicked on an advert? I can’t remember exactly, but I know it would have been because the advert looked like something I was looking for. Which is obvious, right?

But I know from the Google AdSense I have on my ‘blog that the accuracy isn’t always great. And when it is, the copy (the headline text of the advert) is hardly compelling stuff.

So could it really be a question of specificity?

Jeremy Suriel of Goowy Media Inc., the guys behind Yourminis, the web widget and personal page service writes:

“I think the question is interesting. what we are seeing recently, especially with Web 2.0 startups is the concept of ‘freemium’ content offer services that are free so you can compete with others doing the same, and here is where an ad-supported model fits in.

And, to also offer either now or at a later time the option of premium services that gives more advanced users greater functionality, ad-free service, et cetera… you see this in many places from big websites like Google, Yahoo! Mail, Microsoft Windows Live Hotmail to smaller websites like Flickr, Plaxo, MyBlogLog as well.

I think another reason that the free version works in addition to ad-support model, is the transactional model in which the content you provide has some sort of transactional revenue associated with it.

An example of this is with Amazon Affiliate, eBay Affiliate, Apple’s iTunes Store. When a user purchases something from those websites, the website is usually given a percent of the transaction.

So yes, I do see in the future there being free services for mostly everything (like TV today, for example.) And the option to buy (like cable / satellite today) for more / better services.”

Other notable examples of such ‘freemium’ services would be FeedBurner and Clicky, who both offer free but limited versions of their services, with more complete ‘Pro’ services commanding a nominal and usually quite small monthly fee. Or dare I say, micropayment?

To which the Brown Baron adds:

“I think it’s highly probable. Software companies can make web versions of their apps for free use, with ads of course.”

But maybe it’s the weight of the premium content that’s going to tip the balance away from a freer web? That’s certainly what Dan over at The Wrong Advices thinks:

“One reason against is premium content. If you have a large enough loyal userbase, charging a premium for extra content is always a viable option.

Much like videogame producers do on Xbox Live. As opposed to going completely free I see micro-transactions being one area, which is somewhat unexplored at present, where content producers can compliment their existing revenue streams.

Also there are bound to be niches where advertising simply doesn’t convert well enough, and a subscription model is more suitable.

If we are talking absolutes I suspect we will never see a completely free web, but as far as a prevailant model goes I think ad-supported content has the upper hand presently and will continue to do so.”

So if there’s enough of an added-value proposition, a premium is deemed agreeable?

Of course it is. Or why else would people use services like the Apple iTunes Store, unless the service itself wasn’t both qualitative in terms of both the service proper, and the software through which the iTunes Store functions?

Maybe there’s something on the in between? Ilker Yoldas over at The Thinking Blog writes:

“Another option is based on donations.”

Where he points me to a Wikipedia article on Donationware. And while novel, I have to doubt its sustainability, as well as it’s scalability.

Coming in from a more academic angle, and offering a smooth segue into full-blown free software like Linux for example, David Bradley over on blogging tips website Science-Text writes:

“In some niches, such as science, the Open Access and Open Source movement will lend themselves to stuff being entirely free even without ads, Open Access science that has government funding, for instance, and will push these boundaries further out.

It is inevitable that the mainstream web on the other hand will become the next dimension in media and so we will see big conglomerates owned by the next generation Rupert Murdoch’s of this world running ISPs as enormous media companies and making money through subcriptions for access in the same way that they do now with satellite TV.

Advertising will simply supplement this new media. I cannot imagine that we will ever see an entirely free web even with ads popping out at every pair of eyeballs that ever views a page, there is surely not enough financial ad potential to pay for all the bandwidth and electricity bills.

We will continue to pay monthly subscriptions to ISPs though just for the luxury of connectivity.”

So it’s back to the ‘premiumization’ of content, and the added-value package.

Speaking of Rupert Murdoch, whose Sky media empire seems to span the globe these days, they too offer give-away content, by way of some vaguely interesting channels, which endlessly advertise Sky’s other premium channels, such as their Sky Movies series of channels, for example.

But what if people want premium, but aren’t prepared to pay a premium price? I’ll let Divya over at Blogging to Fame explain:

“I don’t agree that everything would be free in Internet. At some time people will have to pay for services. And very few ad-based networks can sustain themselves for long periods, though there would always be some free options available.

And when it comes specifically to content, most of it would be free or can easily be found on many P2P (Peer-to-Peer) services, which might not be legal but a fact of life today.

But in the long term, I expect quality content is not going to be free: 1. corporate houses will find the best ways to curb piracy, and then they will start charging for their content / services; 2. Lot’s of research on improving on-line shopping environments will eventually lead to an on-line shopping culture; 3. good things come with price.”

Didn’t we have some kind of technology that was supposed to foil theft on the ‘Net? Oh, that would be DRM, wouldn’t it?

In conclusion

What we have are a number of ways in which thee & me can be as easily as fools be made strangers of our own money.

What we have are methods by which the web can be a sustainable platform for a wide range of services, many of which being divided into tiered web applications.

So at the bottom of this hierarchy of increasingly Rich Internet Applications (RIAs) services that often make excellent use of microformats to offer discrete, compact and utilitarian pocket portals for you to manage your stuff.

But where is all of this furious industry leading us?

We’ve had our fill of Web 2.0 already! What comes after Web 2.0, damn it?!

“Moving forward, and I think a time will come when the the turn of phrase: ‘Going on the web’ will drift out of our vocabulary. In time, you’ll just decide to find something, and you’ll do so from almost anywhere from any number of devices.

Your questions will then be interpreted contextually, depending on where you are and what your question is. And finally, the data you uncover will become your data.

I say your data because the end result of your search maybe so highly focused to your specific needs – and with more data & information being disentangled from proprietary ownership – that your results become part of your own Lifestream or Workstream.

Discoverable from anywhere at any time. There for you to manipulate, adjust, widen, refine, reshape, subtract from or even just discard.

This is the social web maturing and the high five of the API (Application Programming Interface) being joined by the square-shouldered, firm hand shake of the Enterprise, their databases, blade servers and their becubicled staff scattered hither & yonder around this global village of ours.”

In the future, we won’t have to be smart, we’ll just need some gadget with a screen and a fast Internet connection…

Recommended reading

Our esteemed guest commentators (in order of appearance)

Brian Heys, of Brian Heys Writes

Jeremy Suriel of Goowy Media Inc.

The Brown Baron

Dan over at The Wrong Advices

Ilker Yoldas over at The Thinking Blog

David Bradley over on Science Text

Divya over at Blogging to Fame

By Wayne Smallman

Wayne is the man behind the Blah, Blah! Technology website, and the creator of the Under Cloud, a digital research assistant for journalists and academics.

6 replies on “Will everything on the web one day be free?”

Interesting discussion. In the past month, after creating my blog using WordPress (free), I’ve shelled out subscriptions to ClustrMaps and NeoWORX for premium services related directly to my blog (counting stats), to MyBlogLog (to help build traffic to my site) and to Flickr (to store and display my photos in more than the three sets you get with the free service and without monthly upload restrictions).

Four annual subscriptions taken out in one month and costing around $90. That’s unprecedented for me! But it’s driven by the fact that I have a blog of my own to nurture and grow, the services for which I’ve paid have a definite, recognizable intrinsic value under these circumstances and the subscriptions seem to me to be reasonable.

There’s one more stat-collecting service I use that I haven’t subscribed to (preferring to stick with the restricted free service) because they’re asking around $45 a year, and that figure falls outside my current comfort zone for one service.

So will everything on the web one day be free? No – not while there are people like me willing to spend a little money for bits and pieces to use on their own blog projects. And nor should everything be free, really. I see no reason why apps developers shouldn’t recoup some of their creativity and investment of both time and money through subscriptions.

Hi Bob and thanks for the comprehensive comments. Much appreciated.

It’s certainly an interesting topic, isn’t it?

Personally, I don’t foresee some point in the near future when all things on the web will be free.

Altruism doesn’t make too much business sense, and doing stuff for the fun of it isn’t much of an option, either!

But how fortuitous, since as we talk about a not-so-free web, Google go and buy FeedBurner, which was a shrewd move with all things considered.

I think the closest we’re going to get to free is very small payments, often referred to as either micro-payments or micro-transactions.

This can only really come into full force once the big guys at the top of the food chain offer more fine-grained services (I’m thinking about the Merchant Service banks, the payment gateways et cetera) which in turn enable those below them to offer similarly smaller, more byte-sized services for tiny amounts of money.

What we do know is, the present web is nowhere near the finished article…

Hey Wayne,

Thanks for popping in to see what I’m all about – I’ve got a link to you now from my place (forgot to add it before going out to water the garden!).

All this web 2.0 stuff takes a lot of maintenance, doesn’t it? 🙂 Since getting into blogging in a Big Way and discovering all the other socially interactive sites we simply have to join, I seem to spend much of my day adding links, checking on my Technorati and MyBlogLog pages, uploading photos to Flickr, commenting on other people’s blogs … if I ever get round to writing The Novel, it’ll be a miracle!

But I’m loving it all, though 🙂 A whole new world is opening up to me!

Great site you’ve got here – I’ll be back as often as I can make it 🙂

Hi Wayne, I found your link on Brown Thoughts’ blog. The title of your article interested me.

I believe that we’ve only seen the beginning of the advertising supported software and service offerings. Indeed, it’s nothing new, but it has a stronghold on our society, and I don’t think that’s necessarily a bad thing.

The previous method of selling a box of software has perished. Offering ads to support them now or offering subscriptions is really the only thing that will allow them to survive.

@Bob: yes, the whole ‘blogging thing can be all-consuming if left unchecked.

And the worst about it is, the more well-known you become, the less time you have!

Hope to see you around…

@Mark: advertising really has only just started to break out into the wider web.

One example would be in-game music sales and advertising, and then there’s Google attempting to squeeze advertising into mobile phones. So there’s all kinds of revenue craziness going on.

And thanks for your comments…

I think it’s important to keep a clear definition of “free”. In many cases on the internet free really means “someone else is paying”. Some kinds include:

1) Advertisers are paying. What troubles me about this model is that advertisers only continue to pay as long as their adverts perform. If the general public are trained to expect that everything is free, what can an advertiser sell to them?

This model applies obviously to Facebook. The main exception I can think of to this is Google Analytics, which is free but essentially exists to prove the efficacy of Google Adwords with the goal of selling more.

2) Other customers are paying. The Flickr / Basecamp model, where free provides a limited experience of a larger product. This may convert some people into customers, but in the meantime their experience is free. I quickly outgrew the free option in Flickr and went “pro”.

This also covers community software – anything from WordPress, MySQL to Linux. The additional products and services around the product pay for its upkeep.

3) Investors are paying – the Web 2.0 mug’s game.

See sites like YouTube and Twitter – a massive success, as long as you don’t define success as “making any money”. Sites like these generally remain free until they reach one of two outcomes:

a) The owners figure out how to “monetise” them (hideous word) in some way.
b) The site goes down in flames.

Personally, I don’t think *everything* on the web will *ever* be free. The web supports all kinds of models – free, paid, ad-supported etc and new models will continue to evolve.

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