Information Wants to Be Free?

In my last column, I proposed that everyone should pay for sending email. That is, whenever you send an email — whether you are at work, at home, or at school — you or your institution should pay for your use of email. I proposed that this is the only realistic way to make spam a lot less prevalent, while encouraging the distribution of marketing and informational email that is actually worth the prepaid bits and bytes it is written with.

People in the business of sending email, individual and corporate, would pay small amounts for each email sent, probably on a tiered model (e.g., “Your first 1,000 emails per month are free, $0.001 per email after that”). Spammers who until now have piggybacked on cheap or free Internet bandwidth and open, unprotected relay email servers would have to now pay a bulk fee for each email.

Sound familiar? It should; this is how the good old U.S. Postal Service works.

Why Pay?

ClickZ readers have asked me, “Why should I pay for email? I already pay for Internet access, and I should not have to pay even more.” Well, as an individual user, you are probably paying more than you should be, while others are not paying nearly enough. Flat-fee pricing for Internet access assumes that everyone is eating pretty much the same amount as everyone else, but that is not the case. Some eat a lot more than you, and some eat a lot less, but all pay the same amount. This model is also known as the “obtain market share at any cost” business model and is still prevalent throughout the Internet.

But what is becoming glaringly clear is that gaining market share in an arena where several competitors are also giving away the farm to get market share is not sustainable. Many free Internet service providers (ISPs) have gone the way of the dodo, and many other advertising-sponsored free Web sites are also suffering. The main reason for this is that while these companies may be gaining millions of eyeballs, the people behind those eyeballs are not spending money. They expect everything for free, and this has somehow become the mantra of any Internet user: “I refuse to pay for anything on the Internet. My ISP fee is enough.” Once some Net company starts charging a fee, people seem to gravitate to some other free, and potentially inferior, alternative.

Some marketing people will recognize that when the customer says, “I refuse to pay,” it usually means that there is no perceived value for the product, and others may go so far as to claim that the Internet as a whole is more of a time sink than a time saver. But, of course, this completely depends on your point of view — what may appear useless to one person can be extremely valuable to others.

Please Don’t Go!

The Curmudgeon has noticed certain products and technologies that have become invaluable on the Internet, and although these items are free right now, he would gladly pay for them. In other words, the Curmudgeon would be terribly sad if these invaluable services suddenly disappeared one day:

If each one of you took an inventory of what you commonly use on the Internet, I would bet you could also come up with a similar short list. More important is that apart from typical e-commerce Web sites like Amazon.com, there are several Web sites getting traction that do charge for use:

  • For auctions: eBay

  • For online collaboration: eRoom
  • For digital photography: Shutterfly
  • For online banking: Take your pick

The point of this inventory is this: There is a whole set of Net applications that should come at a cost, and email is one of them. The more applications you use, the more your Internet should cost. But, if all you want to do is send a few emails every day, should your Internet cost $19.95 per month?

New Environment, New Models

The Curmudgeon would like to see an Internet that is less hype and more — much more — substance. The business models that would result from something like charging for email and other critical Net applications could completely change what the typical Internet company looks like. Instead of spending millions on wacky advertising campaigns in an effort to get market share at all costs, companies would pour their revenues into pleasing their growing and loyal customer base and building sustainable growth.

And can you imagine what would happen if thousands of Net applications were reliable, compelling, and easy to use? Can you visualize what would happen if you paid only for what you used and never had to deal with things that you had no use for?

Isn’t that the Internet you’ve always wanted?

Note: In the calculation I made in last week’s article, I wrote “0.001 cents” instead of “$0.001”; the archived article now shows the correct figure. The Curmudgeon apologizes for this oversight.

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