Free means never having to say you’re stingy

John Gushue
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At this time of the year, with Christmas bills piling up and that spend-spend-spend feeling in the air, everyone’s eyes are keen to spot a bargain.

On the web, our eyes immediately go to anything that says it’s as cheap as can be. Free, that is.

There’s been an online cliché for years that content wants to be free. Namely, people will read the news for free before they’ll shell out for a paper and a magazine, or they’ll look for a free bit of a music or a movie before they’ll pay for a legal copy. For software, free has become a rallying cry, with the open-source movement cutting deep into a very large and powerful industry.

And, yet, the free movement has its limits, or at least its contradictions. Let’s have a deeper look at where things are.

Countless music lovers still insist on never, ever paying for music, even though it’s quite likely they’re downloading junk versions of songs and may be pulling down computer-killing malware to boot. Perhaps for these reasons, legal online sales are still growing. This indicates that the market has accepted a buck as a decent price for a song, and that many consumers are willing to pay so long as they get high-quality, fast downloads.

Want a movie or TV show? You can get that for free, too, if you’re patient with downloads and have a provider that won’t pinch your pipe as, say, the complete season of Glee drains down. Even though torrent-based downloading is still popular, how to explain the proliferation of DVD sets, some of them quite pricey, we see on the shelves at this time of year?

As smartphone sales skyrocket, consumers are looking for stuff to put on them. A free app is hard to turn down, and while I love some of my free apps, let’s face it: the best apps come at a price. Already, the app business is measured in the B-for-billions.

Here’s a twist, though. While app sales are mind-boggling, the market for widgets has practically dried up. Developers started knocking out widgets years ago, so that your computer desktop could pull in news content or stock prices, set reminders, remind you of a deadline, or just do something silly. The whole field now seems marginal. Which is curious, since many widgets often have one thing in common: they’re free. Shouldn’t that capture public attention?

A good theory is that developers have put their best ideas into apps for your phone, instead of widgets for your PC, knowing full well where the market is headed. A Dudley Do-Right may let his widget fly away free of charge, but he’s probably got a reliable source of income from something else. I don’t blame any developer who is trying to eke something out (or strike it rich) in the paid-app market.

And then there’s the complicated news business. While I’m a content producer myself, and I know that the best content is never made for free, I still can’t see a radical shift in the online marketplace, at least for news and information. Paywalls have been tried before, and they generally don’t work. Yes, Dow Jones and the Wall Street Journal make money by charging fees to subscribers for value-added information, but their service is unique, if not rarified, and they pretty much have a corner on it.

Most news providers, though, need to realize that substantial revenue is simply not going to come from subscription fees for online readers. More importantly, their audiences are going to head elsewhere.

That doesn’t mean that people won’t pay for digital reading material. I think tablets and e-readers are proving that people will pay for some things, like books and whole magazines.

In other words, when it comes to free and paid content, it’s a fragmented (and sometimes contradictory) world where the consumer is willing to shell out for one thing and insist on a freebie for the next.

And one more thing: all of this is not only subject but guaranteed to change.

John Gushue is an online editor with CBC News in St. John’s. Twitter: @johngushue. Blog:

Organizations: Dow Jones, Wall Street Journal, CBC News

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