Freebies Aren't Forever.
January 18, 2001 10:32 AM   Subscribe

Freebies Aren't Forever. Are free web applications going down in flames? This article make the future out to be dim indeed.
posted by ericost (28 comments total)
Tangential question:

From the article:
>only a fraction of the 18,000 users hosting sites
>on coughed up any cash.

There are more than 18,000 users on Blogger, no? What is the actual number?
posted by ericost at 10:37 AM on January 18, 2001

I don't think paying for what you use consitutes a dim future. I'm ready for Blogger Pro. Bring it on!
posted by frykitty at 10:49 AM on January 18, 2001

They may have confused with 18,000 blogspot sites seems somewhat reasonable. Maybe. :-)

I've seen numbers of over 80,000 registered Blogger users, though how many are "live" I don't even want to guess.

And how many run multiple blogs, or contribute to other blogs, etc., etc. that may skew blogger numbers.

I wish a spec sheet of BPro features would be released, but that's highly irrelevant. :-)
posted by cCranium at 10:52 AM on January 18, 2001

frykitty: Yeah, I also look forward to paying for Blogger Pro, but the "dim future" the article presents is for free web applications, which blogger pro ain't. Pyra will continue to offer the free blogger app, I'm sure, but once they launch the pro version, you can't really call the overall venture a free web application. Pyra has always intended to make money on their product, which is great, but what about the sites that have no such goals? Will the donation model support free services? Or will more fall away like Organizine did so quickly? Must a web app be run as a business to survive?

I hope not, because I would like to continue to develop web apps for free public consumption and support them and myself through other means, whether through other ventures of my own, or with a paypal type donations model.
posted by ericost at 11:04 AM on January 18, 2001

I think the free Web applications that are doomed are the ones that aren't worth keeping around. If something is good enough, people will find a way to keep it alive. And if the company supporting it dies and doesn't continue developing it then an Open Source group will spring up to take over and support the technology.

The Apache Software Foundation's running on $ are a bunch of other well-founded free technologies. Granted Blogger is far from an Open Source effort but perhaps Open Source is where good free technology goes when their masters die..... ;)
posted by bkdelong at 11:06 AM on January 18, 2001

I don't think free webapps can stick around, there really is no such thing as a free lunch. Well, I guess first we must define what a webapp is and what we're talking about, but I'm thinking of resource intensive, hosted (and perhaps non-hosted) applications.

If they're good, there are scaling issues. There are always support issues, which can be the most expensive part of hosting a free app. Noah Grey's greymatter won't really ever have scaling issues, but there are certainly support issues for Noah, and it doesn't sound like he's having a fun time with that.

I'm also thinking of halfbrain's web apps (now,'s apps, and's apps. If any of those caught on fire popularity-wise, the companies hosting them would have to throw a lot of money at their free apps. They are companies, so they want to turn those folks into customers, right? How can they do that? Many have cut down on their free app use, and have tried to steer folks into a paid mode.

If you're a company, I can't see doing free things being a worthwhile model (unless you have a big staff and healthy business doing enterprise-level work, that way having a big customer like Cisco or IBM could fund your company, and its free product efforts). Yahoo has a whole bevvy of apps that are subsidized by their ad revenue, but since that's on the decline, they've talked about introducing payment systems for their app use, or introduction of all new apps would be paid-only.

If you're an individual doing some free web app, at some point, if not properly planned or managed, it becomes more a chore than a source of fun. And at that point, donations could offset that, though it could just turn into a job for you.

I can't think of any wildly successful free web applications that are great to use and don't suffer from these problems, but I'm sure someone else can. Name a good app that's free?
posted by mathowie at 11:42 AM on January 18, 2001

>And if the company supporting it dies and doesn't
>continue developing it then an Open Source group will
>spring up to take over and support the technology.

In order for this to happen though, it needs the participation of the company in question. If they don't want to open source the app, it doesn't happen.

In Blogger's case, the database and application framework are too valuable for them to just open source it. If Pyra went out of business, they'd sell them (or try to sell them) to someone, liquidating their assets to pay their debts just like any other company would sell their office equipment and such.
posted by jkottke at 12:08 PM on January 18, 2001

It's obvious Blogger users would be willing to pay.

Why not just start charging, even if it's $2 a month? If you get 40,000 people paying, that's $80,000 more than you had before.

The people who don't want to pony up can go back to doing it the stone age way.
posted by timothompson at 12:20 PM on January 18, 2001

I'm not an applications developer by any stretch, but I run a topic-focused links directory, and I certainly agree with the support issues that app developers have to contend with. I'm not at the point where I'm going to take my ball and go home (shut down the site) but I'm definitely at the point where I've stopped playing the game and have taken the air pump home (put links addition on hiatus.) I'm simply unable at this time to keep up with all the mail and site upkeep.

Matt's right, there is a point where maintaining any free Web service, app or otherwise, becomes more of a chore than something fun. I finally cracked after almost 5 years. It's too bad other people had less of a time, but supporting users as a hobby is seriously Not Fun.

Those encouraging Open Source should remember that one of the hurdles to adopting Open Source solutions is the lack of support. Many new users find the apps difficult to use, prompting the support issues that make things difficult for the developers.

BTW, I do have a Blogger account and did not donate money to the server fund; I set up the account to help some friends of mine with setting up blogs of their own. I don't run my own Blogger blog. My weblogs are all hand-coded. In other words, not all those Blogger accounts are active by any stretch of the imagination.
posted by Electric Elf at 12:23 PM on January 18, 2001

it needs the participation of the company in question.

Now that's not true. The Linux kernel, and the majority of the Linux components, were developed by people who wanted a piece of software that was sort of like one that existed (if not identical) and they reverse engineered it.

I think the problem with web-apps is that, as a general rule, in their current incarnation, they require servers. It's very difficult for a group of people to allocate the necessary funds and time to support a server farm when they aren't being reimbursed for it.

Traditional open source projects, like Linux or Apache, are actual applications. You download the copy, and then you personally don't hit that server anymore, except for updates and manuals and whatnot. A reasonably low server usage. Companies with bandwidth can also easily mirror the files, easing server-related concerns for the people in charge of the actual projects.

With .. is there a specific qualifier for applications that ASPs provide? I'll stick with web-based for now, though HTTP isn't necessarily a component.

With web-based apps, the servers are constantly being hit by (in cases of popular apps) thousands, possibly millions of users on a very regular basis.

That's massive bandwidth and server usage. While companies may be willing to mirror (or otherwise relive the "original" servers) an aspect of it (assuming that's possible.. real-time mirroring seems difficult when the servers are in more than one room, and delays aren't always acceptable), eventually something like Blogger comes down to one point (even if it's just the router) that can become bogged down if money isn't constantly thrown at it.

I personally don't like the idea of no free web applications, and I think that a limited, free version of an application is going to be a fairly common service. As long as the company can convince (through either good marketing [boo] or "value-added" functionality [yippee, except for the buzz wording :-]) it's "advanced" users, or those who want extra functionality at the very least, to pay for those features, a free version to "lure" people in is still viable.
posted by cCranium at 12:24 PM on January 18, 2001

Not just web apps - name *any* good manmade product or service that remained indefinitely free (without ads, without any strings attached, without anyone footing some sort of bill). Someone, somewhere, has to pay something; giving your time and effort out of the pure goodness of your heart can go a very long way indeed - it can get you started, and carry you for a sweet distance onward - but unless you're Mother Teresa, you *have* to get something back from it at some point or it kills you. Human nature.

I started working on Greymatter for very personal reasons, but much of what kept me working on it over the past few months has been the warm encouragement and, yes, donations I've received along the way (I was walking the telethon beat well before Blogger got into it) ;) - and that's what helped keep me going with it so far. (And since it's a standalone product with no dependence on an outside source, it can be used from now til doomsday regardless of my personal involvement.) But *every* product or service has a threshold, personal or financial or otherwise, before something has to give. And I have to say I really admire the incredible thresholds the Blogger folks and all the other guys seem to possess - it hurts to see people trying to tear Blogger down, now that I have some tiny inkling of what must have been put into it.
posted by Noah at 12:36 PM on January 18, 2001

Why not just start charging, even if it's $2 a month? If you get 40,000 people paying, that's $80,000 more than you had before.

1) Charging for such a small amount of money is impractical - transaction fees would eat up most of your revenue.

2) You wouldn't get 40,000 people paying. The difference between $0 per month and $1 per month may be a small amount of money, but it's a large amount of hassle. People don't like hassle, and a majority of users would defect (or quit) rather than put up with it.

A personal irony: the idea of spending $2/month on a weblog service makes me shudder, but if I had billed myself for the time I spent maintaining & upgrading the Edgecase software last year, it would have cost over $400/month.

posted by Mars Saxman at 1:08 PM on January 18, 2001

I think people overestimate the need companies have for full-fledged content management systems. I really don't think it's viable to have any site without integrating a content management module of some sort - but it doesn't have to be as complex as some of the big companies are trying to sell.

There's an over-complexity problem with those systems - as anyone who has tried to deploy something like Storyserver or whatever will tell you. Your content management becomes a custom programming issue - and so your whole web presence is beholden to the programming department or IT department.

In almost any company I can think of (and I've worked with companies where this was the case), the very last place that responsibility for websites should reside is in the IT department. Most of the issues in a company surrounding their web activities have nothing to do with IT problems - they have to do with business process issues and basic marketing issues. So anything that serves to force the web development fuction into an IT department is, in my experience, a big mistake.

And that's the potential of Blogger in an enterprise context. It does lack some of the features of the industrial-strength systems - but that's a feature, not a bug. If anyone here has participated in team weblogs using blogger or even if they're just kept multiple weblogs, you know that in fact it's actually a very elegant and utilitarian application and deals with multiple sites very well. That's my impression anyhow.

Let's say you're a big consumer products company. You don't have a single website. You have dozens, maybe hundreds of websites - one for each product for the public, one (intranet) for each product for your sales staff, and maybe one more if you're doing any kind of research. Say you have 10 products - a pretty small company. That's between 20 and 30 sites. Just try using an industrial strength system to manage them all! A quick route to insanity - if it didn't break your license in the first place.

Blogger is deceptively simple. Simple for one weblog. But able to deal with multiple sites in a very straightforward manner, and (I know no details here) it has APIs to talk with other web apps. It's no problem to deal with multiple pages in the same site either. That is really powerful - and its simplicity on the front end and concept is its strength, not its weakness.

The biggest problem that I would foresee is that the sales cycles could be too slow.
posted by mikel at 1:12 PM on January 18, 2001

Hey Mars, how about $24 a year instead of $2 a month? I realize that may be troublesome for some who may not want to commit for that long, but it is not that strange in the subscription world to be asked to pay for a year at a time.

It will be interesting to see how Blogger prices the Pro version.
posted by ericost at 1:31 PM on January 18, 2001

>but unless you're Mother Teresa,
>you *have* to get something back
>from it at some point or it kills you.
>Human nature...

Depends what you want out of it, and what keeps you going. Mother Teresa certainly was a human...she just had a different set of priorities than the majority of us (and was never under pressure by a board of directors to produce a viable business plan).

[ Hee hee! Mother Teresa enters the I guess it had to happen sometime... :-]

posted by webchick at 1:35 PM on January 18, 2001

1. Blogger gets featured in the NooYawker
2. Lots of people sign up with Blogger
3. Pyra asks for donations for new server
4. Grateful Blogger users pony up.
5. Pyra Server Fund gets its own publicity.
6. Even more people sign up...

Now, on first impressions, there's a funny Pyrrhic quality to this. But I'm reminded of the bit in Bill Hicks set where he tells the audience "I started smoking again." and they all cheer. "Some support group you are," he says. "I can see where I got all my willpower from. 'Bill's gonna lose a lung, woohoo!'"

And that's why I worry a little about the Blogger publicity bandwagon: because a small part of me wonders whether we old diehards are like Bill's support group, always happy to nip out for another packet of fags, even when the patient might be headed for a tracheotomy.
posted by holgate at 2:39 PM on January 18, 2001

Not just web apps - name *any* good manmade product or service that remained indefinitely free (without ads, without any strings attached, without anyone footing some sort of bill).

First, I think that's a mean and tricky statement. Well done. :-) There will always be bill-footing, there has to be, whether it's $10/month for server space or $1 million/week for development costs.

I think in the context of "free applications", and especially free web applications, we're talking about free-to-the-user, as opposed to completely without cost to anyone. I agree the latter doesn't exist, but I don't think the latter fits into this conversation.

Why do I feel dizzy?

That clarification (well, attempted at least :-) of context stated, what about Apache? There's definitely bill-footing going on there, but I could go home, put together a computer to install it on, install say FreeBSD and Apache, and in 6 hours (and I'm a lot slower than pretty much any real Unix administrator) have a box full of software that I didn't have to pay for.

And if I'm content with the current versions on the current hardware, I never have to pay for it. I could, theoretically (assuming I've got super-indestructible hardware :-) run the software until I can no longer get electricity to my house. True, down the road it's possible I may have to pay a nominal fee to upgrade, but quite honestly I doubt I will.
posted by cCranium at 2:41 PM on January 18, 2001

holgate: I can understand your concern (and damn you for posting while I was typing! :-) but I mean, that's what Blogger Pro's for, right? To stop that cycle.
posted by cCranium at 2:42 PM on January 18, 2001

Regarding cC's request for a list of Pro's features, I'm going to self-blog and give you a link to the Blogger Pro known info page I put together...
posted by anildash at 4:31 PM on January 18, 2001

Web Apps, like desktop apps and operating systems, have a life cycle. Early on in the life cycle, to gain support for the app, they are usually offered as shareware or freeware.

"The poor users don't get this yet," says Winer. "It hasn't dawned on them yet that all the freebies are about to disappear. They're going to go kaput. The dot-com bubble burst, we're now in a recession, and it ain't coming back. The whole idea that you can get something for nothing is nutty. It's a bad idea."

This is a load of hoarse-shit. We are just now sifting through the first generation of mature web apps. There will be alot more freebies to come.
posted by Neb at 4:39 PM on January 18, 2001

[The stage darkens.]

cC: That's what we're doing.
Holgate: Yes. We're waiting for Blogger Pro.


cC: Let's go.

[They do not move.]
posted by holgate at 5:00 PM on January 18, 2001

"The whole idea that you can get something for nothing is nutty. It's a bad idea."

Okay: so where exactly should I send the cheque for the copy of Linux I'm currently running? (And yeah, I know the free beer != free speech thing, but you have to make the point.)
posted by holgate at 5:03 PM on January 18, 2001

"Linux is free if your time has no value"
-- jwz
posted by mathowie at 5:14 PM on January 18, 2001

anildash: that's groovy, thank you.

holgate: Brilliant. Also, depending on which copy of Linux you're running, you can send it to the distributors, most do accept contributions.

mathowie: good thinking point, though I still stand by the argument that if the user isn't paying money, it's free. Value certainly has more definitions than just no money changing hands, certainly, but free is free is free, goshdarnit! :-)
posted by cCranium at 6:38 AM on January 19, 2001

Why is it that I feel so guilty reading these notes? I don't even own a weblog :/

With all the politics flying around at the moment, I don't want to either. No loss I know ;)

I want to be able to either use something and pay for it or not, whatever the person who has the authority over it wants. Yes there are some things I wouldn't pay for, like my hotmail account. But ususally I am happy to pay for stuff.

I just want the stuff I use to make me happy, and with all this shit flying around, it wouldn't do that at the moment I know. I don't want to feel guilty about not paying for something. I want them to set up one or two ways of paying, and say, "this is what you have to do" and just use the product, and not feel guilty about it or as if I am a freeloader. oh I know I'm being repetative, I hope people understand what I mean.

I feel like whats going on is not all true. It's like what they say about teenagers, you know, them being "good for nothings" which is not true at all, it's just ignorant and society putting their fears on the wrong thing or blaming the wrong group of people too much. Software users aren't all bad either.

posted by intuit at 10:05 AM on January 20, 2001

"Linux is free if your time has no value" -- jwz

Er, well, all computers/OSes have a learning curve. In fact, everything does. In jwz's world, nothing is "free." I would say that depending on your past experience with computers and your personal mindset, Linux may even be the easiest to pick up. Certainly was easier for me than Mac OS, which I still don't "get" apparently. I think it's because I can't let go of wanting to actually know (or at least be able to tell) what's going on inside the computer. :)

But considering all the other baggage that comes along with Windows, Mac, or any other pay-for OS, the "cost" of the software is the smallest "price" you have to pay to use it. Certainly where I work, the biggest headache we have with our big Windows NT server installation, or with our IBM mainframe and AS/400s, is dealing with license compliance and all the various other rules the vendor puts on you. Blah.

But if your time has no value, Windows, IBM, or Apple may seem like a good solution. :)
posted by daveadams at 12:18 PM on January 20, 2001

The difference between $0 per month and $1 per month may be a small amount of money, but it's a large amount of hassle

Exactly. It also takes away the privacy element- to pay you'd most likely have to use a credit card or some other means that gives away your details.

Forcing people to pay for their blogs would make them think "Do I really need this blog?" I have a feeling most would say no. Most would probably go back to doing it the free way.

One possible option would be for blogger to start using advertising. That appears to be the only way succesful web products can get away with offering a free service. Advertising is pretty unpopular, unless blogger could somehow make it small and tasteful.
posted by underpantsgnomette at 2:53 AM on January 21, 2001

Paying for Blogger takes away the privacy element?

Isn't that what using Blogger does? ;)
posted by rory at 3:54 AM on January 21, 2001

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