The Free Experience

There’s been a lot of talk about free services lately in the wake of Google shuttering Reader, most of it negative. The rally cry is one of pay for everything lest ye lose it. Sounds dire right? It’s easy to jump on the bandwagon and shun all free services but is that right? Is free always bad?

If a stranger approached you on the street and offered you a free ice cream cone, you’d be skeptical. First because no one in their right mind would accept food from a random stranger but also because you’d assume there was a catch.

There’s almost always a catch for free, that much we know. Facebook gives you a free way to keep in contact with friends and family but you pay with ads. You also pay with all your data being harvested for a “social graph” whatever the hell that is. This is what keeps Facebook in business so you can see what your cousin is eating for dinner and it’s at least a mostly painless price to pay.

Let’s go back to the Google Reader thing for a moment. Reader was an RSS service which allowed you to subscribe to feeds from your favorite sites and read them in one place. Lots of apps and sites sprung up to improve the somewhat ugly Google experience. It didn’t matter if the site was ugly or clunky or lacked features, it was Google and no one could touch RSS after that point, at least not in a meaningful way. Then one day, we were told it was going away.

The nerd world erupted in panic, what would they do for RSS? As with anything of this nature, it quickly became evident that several newcomers would be staking a claim in the newly abandoned wasteland of feed readers and the panic was replaced with confusion. Who’s service do we all agree on? It better be something paid or we’re going to lose RSS again!

But did we lose something all that important? If RSS didn’t exist, what then? We’d all have to use bookmarks and visit sites manually, a method I happen to prefer. Was the loss all that great if the answer was simply a tiny bit more work? I don’t think so. Luckily we don’t have to find out, now we wait for someone to tell us what service is best or try them all and decide.

Right now the general consensus among the nerds I follow on Twitter is that Feedly is winning. Here’s the kicker, Feedly is a free service with no revenue model. Did we not learn anything from the Readerpocalypse?

Maybe we did, maybe we realized how easy it is to shuffle an OPML file from one service to another and the idea of paying for something so trivial seems silly even after facing this “crisis”. I know someone is reading this and getting angry because they value their RSS feeds, I understand that but I respectfully suggest it’s still not that big of a deal.

Let’s shift gears and look at another paid vs free scenario. I’m a fan of Marco Arment, he’s the creator of Instapaper and The Magazine – both of which he has sold – and one of the loudest voices in the campaign against free services. That’s not to say he’s anti-free but he often engaged in bickering matches with his competitors, And frequently referred to their business models as a negative thing.

For a long time I agreed with Marco and I embraced Instapaper as the only option for a read-it-later service. I refused to try the others simply because free cannot be sustained and I didn’t want to lose my data if they couldn’t keep their doors open.

Let’s get one thing clear here, I know free can’t last. I think we all know that, that’s why we’re so accepting of ads all over the internet. Would your mom pay for Facebook? Probably not and ads make it so she doesn’t have to. The venture backed RSS app with no revenue stream could shut down tomorrow unless someone with deep pockets buys them. There is always an argument for paying for a service you care about.

One day I started wondering why I was so against Pocket. Their app was so pretty and shiny compared to Instapaper. Nothing against Marco – he’s not a designer which he admits often on his podcasts – but Instapaper was starting to feel a little long in the tooth. I can’t exactly describe why but it felt clunky and old even though it functioned perfectly well. And so one day I exported my reading list from Instapaper and dropped it in Pocket.

You know what I won’t miss if Pocket goes under? The articles I have in Pocket. Yes, I find the service handy but I, like a lot of people, have an enormous backlog of things that I’ll never get around to reading. If I want to save a bookmark for the future, I save it in Pinboard where I’m fairly confident it will stay.

I pay for Pinboard because I want the things in there to have longevity, I don’t pay for Pocket because I don’t really care about their lifespan. What I do care about is my reading experience and I feel Pocket provides that better than Instapaper ever did. In my case, a free app works because I have a system in place to deal with things I want to keep.

That was a rather long-winded way to say this: free isn’t something to run away from, it simply means you need to evaluate what you get from the service and what losing it would mean to you. I’m sure you can come up with a thousand counterpoints to what I’ve said but in reality if you won’t shed a tear if your data disappears tomorrow, maybe you’re worrying too much about nothing.