Nothing is Free

With the demise of Google Reader those of us who depend on Really Simple Syndication (RSS) for collecting and reading news articles have been scrambling to find a replacement. A couple of prospective replacements that have take on Google Reader refugees are Feedly and Feever. My primary concern in finding a replacement has been compatibility with Reeder, which I use as my RSS client on my iPhone, iPad, and Macs (Yeah, I’m a bit of an Apple whore, want to make something of it?). Via Reeder’s Twitter account I found out that the developer was planning to include support for Feedbin. When I looked into Feedbin the thing that immediately caught my attention was the subscription fee, in order to use Feedbin you need to either pay $2.00 a month or $20.00 a year. The part of me that has become accustomed to free online services was quickly taken aback. Would I be forced to pay a monthly or yearly fee just to use my preferred RSS client? Why should I pay money to use something that’s free?

Most of us use online services and most of us pay nothing for them. My reaction to seeing that Feedbin charges a monthly fee is mirrored by other Reeder users and that really woke me up to something I seldom think about: we denizens of the Internet have become so accustomed to free services that we become upset when somebody has the audacity to charge money for an online service. We often fail to remember that there are no free lunches. Providing an online service isn’t a costless endeavor. Servers, electricity, Internet connectivity, development and maintenance time, and providing enough infrastructure for users are all costs associated with providing an online service. This blog, if anything, is a loss for me. I don’t count the costs of the server and electricity when calculating the costs of running this blog because that server is providing other services I use (Virtual Private Network (VPN), e-mail, CalDAV, etc.). But it does costs me time in writing blog posts and maintaining the website. Since I enjoy writing and server maintenance (to a point) neither of these are a higher cost than the blog is worth. However, if I was offering a service with a decent number of subscribers, I would need to charge money in order to make providing the service at least break even.

When an service provider offer its “product” free of charge it is almost always recouping costs elsewhere. Google, Facebook, Twitter, and most of the other major online service providers recoup their costs by selling data. Specifically your data. When dealing with these service providers you must think of yourself as the product and the entities buying your data as the customers. If the collected data isn’t purchased by the customers it isn’t useful to the service provider and will likely be discarded. I’m sure Google dropped Reader because its customers weren’t interested in the data collected by the service. I understand that and don’t hold it against Google, they’re in business to make money and there’s no point for Google to maintain a service that isn’t making a profit.

For some time I’ve become less accepting of being a product for Google. Part of this stems from my innate desire to control my data. If my data is hosted on Google’s servers I have no control over it. There is no way for me to know if that data will be preserved or who will be given access to my data (we know the United States government periodically demands user data from Google). I do know that Google is selling my data to its customers. The only way a service provider has any motivation to keep its user data private is if its users are also its customers.

The other method for a service provider to monetize its services is to charge money for its services or provide another product that ties into its services. Apple chooses the latter. iCloud isn’t provided free of charge out of the goodness of Apple’s heart, it’s provided free of charge (at least for the first 5GB of storage) because it’s a feature that allows Apple to sell iPhones, iPads, and Macs. Feedbin has chosen the former. Instead of offering a free service and monetizing user data the people behind Feedbin are asking users to pay a monthly or yearly free. There are two advantages for users under this model: as a user you are also a customer and Feedbin has motivation to keep your information private and Feedbin is more apt to keep the RSS service running since its business model relies on it.

While my initial response to Feedbin was one of distaste I’m beginning to realize it may be a better model for me. I want three things: an RSS service that works with Reeder, motivation for my RSS service provider to keep my information to itself, and an RSS service that won’t suddenly disappear overnight. Being a customer instead of a product will takes care of desires two and three.

Since the costs of providing an online service are generally hidden from users it’s often difficult for a service provider to charge money. This is why most service providers monetize user data. Trying to charge users money for a service is usually met with outrage. Unfortunately there are no free lunches. If you don’t pay money directly you’re going to pay by being a product. Since I’m concerned with control over my data I would prefer to be a customer. Due to this services that directly charge me money instead of monetizing my data are appealing. For most people, those who think little about their data, services that monetize their data are likely more appealing. Either way it would do well if denizens of the Internet stopped responding in outrage when a service provider asks for money from its users. Scarcity is the ultimate law of economics and ensures nothing is every entirely free.