The free software problem

Rachel mentioned a story about a college professor who, to paraphrase, said that “we kids have no right to complain about all the websites we use (Google Mail, Facebook) because they’re giving everything to us for free”.

Well sure, in the traditional economic sense, they are providing a lot for no monetary exchange. But that’s the whole premise of Chris Anderson’s book: Free: The Future of a Radical Price. There are third-parties involved: advertisers being the most obvious one, that are actually providing the monetary exchange. We’ve had this economic model in place for quite a while, a la broadcast television.

Attention economy

Does that mean we have no right to complain, request new features, or demand some level of service? I think we do. Without the collective network of millions, Facebook would not exist. We are the customers because we’re paying with a different (and arguably, more sparse) currency: attention.

While email and social networks are part of most peoples’ lives, nothing scares me more than online banking and financial services. Which is why and Intuit scare me. If I file my taxes online for free with TurboTax, is there really any guarantee it will work like it should? The penalties here are a bit greater than if I can’t ‘poke’ my friends for a day or two on Facebook. What if I spend hours each month tracking my finances and Mint suddenly loses all that data? It’s happened. Do I have any right to demand satisfaction? The way I’ve received (no) support from Mint, the answer may appear to be no. But, the way more successful companies (Facebook, Google) have handled themselves, I’d say demonstrably yes. They understand I am a “paying” customer and need to be treated as such.

Open source software

Now, what if a WordPress plugin developer releases their feature to the world for free. Do they have to follow-up with every email question? How could one person be expected donate both their time in the form of a plugin and in the form of support to thousands of individuals? The latter does not scale and, more importantly, your usage did not contribute to any economic model I can perceive. Open source software is largely reputation based. Yet somehow people expect, nay, demand customer satisfaction. I see it every day.

Companies based on free services like Facebook and Google exist to make money and users are their customers. Individuals releasing free software like plugin developers exist to help grow a community and better an existing product. Somehow this subtle difference is not clear to the average user.

As software and web services become more fundamental and part of our lives, the truism of “getting what you paid for” becomes less obvious; people expect more for less. Unfortunately, there are externalities that bleed into other unrelated areas of the internet. Interestingly enough, the professor was wrong while, at the same time, entirely right.