When Free Goes Bad



We all love free stuff. Google mail, calendar, contacts, docs(drive), music. All superb free services. Dropbox, SkyDrive, UbuntuOne all add options for free cloud storage. Various other startups offer free services such as notes and picture storage. Free is appealing. But it’s risky, and as our dependency on these services grows, and the costs associated with running them goes up, we’ll see more and more either go to the wall, or start charging.

This week I got stung rather badly by the news that Catch.com - the ultra simple online note taking app, decided to “move in another direction”, and discontinue the service with only one month’s notice. Thankfully I can get my notes out, and import into another service. My problem is that I had spent a year learning, and developing a Windows Phone app that was 100% dependent on their API. Oh dear! That is a lot of wasted man-hours of work.

This is the second time I’ve been caught out by a free online service disappearing. I was an avid user of Google Reader before the plug was pulled. For those companies who keep their products, we are seeing a shift towards a pay model.

Now, I don’t mind paying for stuff to have a degree of certainty that the product will still be around in a years time. My big problem is the cost some of these companies charge. Apple may have introduced the idea of selling apps in bulk for peanuts, but the idea doesn’t seem to have caught on with most companies who are either too greedy, or too busy subsidising the free users, to charge a sensible fee. Dropbox are a prime example. Great product, but at $100/year for 100Gb, it is undeniably expensive. Yet I am more than happy paying Microsoft £32 ($48)/year for the same 100Gb. If I paid for the Premium versions of all the online services which I occasionally use, it adds up to a reasonable sum. Endomondo, Evernote, Dropbox, Google Apps. Most of these services are worth paying something for, but the pricing models are based on users who are using their product as a core part of their life. I don’t, so I won’t pay.

I can’t help thinking all these services would be cheaper if they weren’t giving so much away for free. To attract the customers, a more sustainable model may be to offer the full premium service for free for a long trial period. No more ridiculous 14 or 30 trials which are no use to anyone. No trial should be shorter than 120 days, and for something long term like online storage, make it a year - then make it cheap to sign up at the end of the trial.