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Devs debate dangers of free services

Paying customers the only way to ensure a sustainable service

As Google Reader’s death rattle continues to echo, some developers have warned about the dangers of supporting and using free services.

However, rather than blame users for not paying, Michael Jurewitz has argued developers should be doing more to promote paid services, rather than ignoring profitability in order to build an audience more rapidly.

In The Price of Free, Jurewitz derided free as a “costly mistake that businesses and small developers should avoid, and users should run away from like the plague”. Although he admitted some ecosystems have thrived under the model, Jurewitz said even the likes of Twitter has had to squander goodwill as it’s come under “increasing pressure to monetise the service”.

Jurewitz recommended that developers recognise customers paying for a service is the “best signal to understand if you are building a solution that they want”. This can then result in a sustainable service.

This is precisely what Tina Roth Eisenberg recently announced with the new version of TeuxDeux. The updated iPhone/online to-do utility is moving to a subscription service. “We have seen too many startups close shop or get acquired (and shut down their product),” said Eisenberg. “We do not want to see any of this happen to TeuxDeux. We love the app too much.”

Eisenberg subsequently noted how transitioning to free can be painful. Although some users responded positively about the changes to the service (on the basis that it will now be sustainable and evolve), others complained loudly. “Lesson learned: never give anything away for free if at some point you have to charge for it to keep it alive,” said Eisenberg on Twitter, adding that she was nonetheless confident in the company’s decision.

However, Marco Arment’s take was less black and white regarding payment for services. In Free works, he noted that “many tech startups never even attempt to reach profitability before they’re acquired or shut down”, due to payments being against people’s immediate best interests.

According to Arment, free services have been part of the reason for the web’s success, and predatory practices are the bigger issue. “Google Reader dominated the feed-reading and feed-sync markets so much that almost no alternative existed,” he said. “The best thing we can do isn’t necessarily to try to pay for everything, which is unrealistic and often not an option. Our best option is to avoid supporting and using proprietary monocultures.”

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