Free: The Future of a Radical Price is a new book from Chris Anderson that has caused various folks to turn red, argue, get defensive and worry.
Most of the worry was already there. But Free provides structure. That is a benefit.
I chose to read Free while drinking herbal mint tea at Barnes & Noble. The venti tea cost $2.06 (I forgot to use my membership card). I was able to milk my tea for the several hours it took to read Free.
I did not pay for Free. Which means I read Free for Free.
By following the principles of Free, Barnes & Noble earned $2.06, instead of $25 something.
While I do not believe this pleases Barnes & Noble, they earned more than Amazon this time around. That is also a benefit and maybe a quandary. How to get herbal mint tea out of a Kindle. hmmm.
Chris Anderson got my attention and respect, although, I believe his publisher would have preferred a twenty dollar bill as well. I also give Wired my attention, so maybe it balances out. Tough equations.
I get the feeling Gladwell at the New Yorker felt Free was a bit weak around the edges. Godin seems to agree with Anderson, declaring Free is a done deal. Cuban’s post with the question Free or Freely Distributed is a must read.
My thoughts about Free are also Free to you, do with them as you will.
- First – Arguing about whether Free is good or bad or ugly is silly. As Anderson points out, the cost of providing digital Free is so inexpensive that it will be a major disruptive force in the economy for the foreseeable future. Not just the digital economy mind you, the whole economy.
- Second – Anderson wishes us to believe today’s free is different from yesterday’s free. I do not buy this, nor do I accept it for free. Free is and always will be a weapon, sampling device, or a function of cost shifting. The fact that it is now very inexpensive to do legally or illegally simply affects scale and timeline. If you sell a product that can be digitized you will be under pressure to find support from a product that can not be digitized.
- Third – Improved Access. You probably wouldn’t be reading this blog if it wasn’t for the idea of Free.
So, the book is worth a look if only to organize your thoughts for the tough fight ahead. He gives a great overview of the various FREE* business models that address some of my previous comments on his line of thought. I really am not all that afraid of Free, because in all truth sooner or later Cash must flow, it is just a question of how. (Fair Disclosure, I am a marketer and therefore some people feel Free is one-tenth of my vocabulary.)
The book is an enjoyable, quick read. My primary problem with Anderson is around what I consider to be his short shrift in discussing ownership.
- Ownership rights. The digital world is treading all over the question of ownership, justifying itself by claiming all ills are solved with broad distribution. We are told free redistribution can only benefit due to the principle of sampling, harm is only the imaginary term ‘opportunity cost.’ No worry that others are profiting directly from that redistribution while you must figure out something else to ‘sell.’ The problem here is the lack of choice presented to the owner, not whether the business model is smart or stupid. Fuzzy ownership can limit opportunity by damaging the ability to create contractual, mutually beneficial relationships. Currently, this is reality and business models must be created to generate revenue within this reality. I don’t feel the moral argument has been either won or even reasonably debated as of yet.
- Defeat Pirates With Better Product. If one has to live in a system where pirating is rife, then yes an economic model that operates on that assumption can be created. You can beat them on quality, organization and safety. You can also run a convenience store in a neighborhood featuring a Mafia protection racket. Simply because you can doesn’t mean this is the best economic model for society at large. It could encourage serious corporate espionage to heighten fear and reduce overall product safety. I accept that it is reality that must be lived with today, but don’t think the argument as to what serves man best has been decided.
- Cash Free vs Free. Anderson outlines the various modes of free quite well, however he minimizes the value being derived from personal data being required by some applications on the web. I hate it when I’m told Facebook is free. Or that the little microapps on Facebook are free. Every time I agree to ALL of my personal data being shared with an Easter Egg application I get queazy. In the free economy our attention, friendships, reputation and credit score may be the only currency of value.
Understanding how Free fits into your strategic basket is critical. Becoming active in how ownership will be defined as the digital age starts to mature is also critical. Being part of the discussion will give you a leg up on the answer, even if it is ‘deal with it.’