Is ‘Free’ Really Worth It?

“Free” always begs the question: What’s the catch? The prospect of something-for-nothing usually causes a tingle of excitement that is followed by a predictable letdown when the natural law, “You get what you pay for,” kicks in.

In its early days, the World Wide Web — responsible for so many paradigm shifts — seemed to provide the means for a radical return to the pure meaning of the word “free.” Once users were connected, they found vast amounts of information available at a cost of nothing but their time. It was a price they loved to pay as they clicked away, enraptured by the immense possibilities of the Internet.

As the Web underwent a transformation from an information-only to an e-commerce medium, many thought that the free-wheeling days were over, and the Internet would become all about money. However, in a peculiar way, the Web has become about making money and being free at the same time.

Information Era

Free content on the Internet is a given. People who want information about raising orchids no longer have to seek out the gardening shelves at the bookstore or even drive to the local library. A great deal more than everything-they-ever-wanted-to-know is available on the Net. That is generally true of even the most esoteric subject matter.

But because some people still like to hold a book in their hands, companies like Amazon and Barnes and Noble discovered that they could use the Internet to sell books about orchids — and everything else under the sun, too. Suddenly, e-commerce was born.

Getting Them into the Store

Some e-commerce companies have been content to employ many of the same types of marketing promotions found in the offline world — free gifts, free shipping and free trials, but a handful of firms have been more daring. For them, the staggering potential for e-commerce profits through sales and advertising was enough to justify hefty investments in getting more customers online. Some companies began offering free e-mail. Then came free Internet access and even free computers.

Of course, those freebies rarely, if ever, come with no strings attached. The free services generally require users to fill out personal information questionnaires and are accompanied with “navigation bars” that feature rotating banner ads, often specifically targeted to individual user interests.

Price Tag for Service

Although such free access companies as NetZero claim to offer a full range of services to customers, they may charge a premium for faster — or what many would consider reasonable — access to representatives.

For example, NetZero customers who opt for the free support service may have to wait on hold for 30 minutes or more to speak to a technician, who is then likely to handle the issue by making a single suggestion that may or may not solve the problem. The call is quickly over, and if the user finds that the fix does not work, a follow-up call to NetZero could take another 30 minutes, and then the cycle repeats itself.

NetZero seems to be discouraging its users from expecting too much for free.

Government Gets into the Act

During his administration, President Bill Clinton raised public awareness about the “digital divide” — the gap in Internet access between high and low income Americans — and some state and local governments took steps to address the problem by providing truly free services to their citizens.

Just months after a Georgia town announced that it would provide free Internet access to its citizens for at least a year, Governor Roy Barnes and Bell South Corp. (NYSE: BLS) unveiled an initiative to bring high-speed Internet access to residents in all reaches of the state. The initiative is being funded through the Business Expansion and Support Act (BEST), which is designed to encourage investment in Georgia’s rural regions.

Free or Almost Free?

Offers of free or almost-free computers are frequently tied to contracts with Internet Service Providers that may extend for up to three years. The cost of the equipment is factored into the monthly access fees, and in some cases consumers are not told what they are actually paying for their computers — or they get the information in microscopic fine print.

The FTC cracked down on some well known companies that made fraudulent offers for free or low cost PCs, requiring them to clearly and fully disclose their total prices, even taking into account the service contract costs subsidizing the offers.

When Free Is a Bitter Pill

The development of file-sharing networking technology led to the availability of free digital downloads on the Internet, causing major waves in the music and software industries. Services like MP3 and Napster, which enjoy huge popularity among college students, enable users to obtain digital copies of their favorite music without having to spring for the cost of the CD.

While MP3 is making an effort to get on the right side of the established music industry by negotiating terms that will compensate copyright owners, Napster is fighting it out in court.

However, the widespread availability of “Napster clones” on the Internet means that even if the company loses its court battle, the digital downloaders have already won the war. There is no way to put a halt to the file-sharing made possible by networking technology. For all practical purposes, the Internet has made recorded music as free as network TV, and the artists and labels are eventually going to have to come to terms with reality and find innovative ways to profit from their endeavors.

A few optimists believe that artists will benefit tremendously by having a direct line to their audiences on the Web, especially those artists who might not fit the recording studios’ mold-of-the-week. They may not ever get a dime from CD sales, but they may attract followers who will happily shell out $40 (US$) a head for concert tickets.

Open Source Movement

File-sharing technology also makes it possible to download “free” software applications on the Web, a practice that has also raised a loud outcry against piracy. But some observers are questioning the underlying philosophy supporting claims of ownership — especially followers of the open source movement sparked by Linux creator, Linus Torvalds.

With operating systems and software applications being given away so freely, it may seem perfectly ethical — at least to some people — to simply help themselves to the software that big companies are selling for absurdly high prices. Especially when there is no practical way to stop them.

The Internet has created levels and permutations of “freedom” that may seem strange to those of us who are pioneering the new world, but our human capacity for adaptation seems to be allowing us to absorb changes as quickly as technology can deliver them. The cost-benefit equation of “free” things on the Net will undoubtedly flummox the mathematical wizards who are still trying to solve the riddle of something for nothing.

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