There’s been a lot of free talk provoked by Chris Anderson’s book, Free: The Future of Radical Price. Cory Doctorow’s critique of the book is very spot on when he mentions that some things are just “truly free” and can exist outside of a “marketplace”. That’s why Anderson fumbles a lot between the idea of free and cross-subsidized methods. But the above link to the Snarkmarket post takes the cake in explaining and understanding what Anderson is trying to explain, or sell.
When the idea of free really works, it makes us forget that it ever even cost anything at all. Reading web pages is free – once you count the money you pay for internet access. Between my phone and my house, I pay more for internet access per month than I do books – and I read a lot. Add on to that all of the ways my free behavior is paid for with information from or attention paid by me, and a ruthless calculus would determine that the internet is expensive as hell.
Almost all free things are cross-subsidized in some ways. But if the cross-subsidy is obvious – “Free phone with a two-year plan worth at least…” – then free fails. If your website suddenly has a glaring and obnoxious banner ad, then it doesn’t matter if it is as free today as it was yesterday. It doesn’t feel free anymore.