Essays on Technology and Culture

On the Price of Free

I’m starting to get wary about free apps. It probably started with the purchase of Instagram by Facebook, but the underlying problem is a lot older. A few quick examples that should have tipped off my radar: Yahoo! ditching Delicious, the Facebook privacy kerfluffle(s), Readability versus Instapaper versus Pocket, and Google, Google, Google. Many free applications and services have a hidden price. We all know this. Google and Facebook use your data to sell ads. You’re not the customer, you’re the product. Of course, that applies to the companies that actually get your data, whether by asking or taking. Other free services just ride on venture capital until a bigger company decides to buy them. You’re still a product, but having you in their user numbers is what drives their value up, more than the data you put into it.

It’s quite the quandary.

I’ve entrusted so much to “The Cloud,” almost all of it to free services. A lot of my important files are in the care of Dropbox. I use Apple’s iCloud to store calendars, and move data between my phone and laptop. Google handles my e-mail, my contacts, and even my text messaging and phone calls through Google Voice. [1] I’m not so worried about Dropbox and iCloud. The former has paid levels that will keep it running, and iCloud is subsidized by purchasing Apple hardware. Google’s not likely to go away, and there isn’t much that they can do with my contacts, I suppose, except try and nudge them into joining Google+. That doesn’t mean I’m happy to let them…

Then, there’s specialized places, like Flickr that house my photos, and Pinboard for my bookmarks. Pinboard doesn’t worry me—it’s a paid service. I paid $7.54 to sign up around the time Delicious was expected to go the way of Geocities. [2] At the time of this post, it costs a little under $10 to sign up. Flickr, on the other hand, has me worried. It’s a mostly healthy organ attached to the withering, diseased body of Yahoo! and it’s attendant properties. Flickr has paid options, but there is a very real chance it might go away and take a lot of my pictures and memories with it. I have most, if not all, of the images I keep on Flickr stored locally, but I know there are gaps. I’ll need to throw down for a pro account to fill those in, particularly photos from my earliest days on the service. This is that odd case where a service with a paid tier may still die, but that’s more the fault of its caretakers negligence. Sadly, I can’t find another service that matches Flickr on features and price.

Every new, free service I see that offers something I might want now has me mulling over its longevity. Can I trust this service, app, website, platform, et cetera to be here in five years? One year? Six months? Instagram was independent for seventeen months before Facebook bought them. What’s to stop the next interesting looking free app from either vanishing, selling itself and my data to another company, or both? I want to trust these apps and services. Increasingly, it seems the best way to do that is make sure they get some money from me. Marco Arment is infinitely less likely to throw me under a bus by selling Instapaper to someone. Even if, hypothetically, he did sell it, the service doesn’t have much more data on me than a couple hundred saved articles. There might be something there to target ads with, but that’s probably a less viable solution in the long run than just charging a couple bucks for the app, and offering paid subscriptions to users.

I wish I had an answer, but I don’t have one. In the mean time, I’ll try to give money to people who are asking for it, and be cautious about how much I’m willing to share with free services. In time, maybe it will all shake out, hopefully in a way that keeps the Marco Arments of the world successful, and keeps people’s personal data safe. I can’t help but be pessimistic about the chances.

  1. It’s worth whatever sneaky stuff Google’s doing behind the curtain just to have free, unlimited text messaging.  ↩

  2. My first website was hosted on Geocities. I moved to a couple different hosting providers the last of which finally went under back in 1999. Even doesn’t have a copy. Good riddance.  ↩