Brandon Rozek

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PhD Student @ RPI studying Automated Reasoning in AI and Linux Enthusiast.

Why pay for things when you can get it for free?

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3 minute reading time

Other than physical hardware, it is often expected with technology that services come for free. It should be free to make a search query, free to host gigabytes of personal photos, free to send sticker packs to all my friends. And while I welcome lowering the barrier of entry to use technology, I want to provide a counter narrative. This type of expectation can have negative effects.

Almost nothing is truly free. Outside of technology, it costs money to keep clean and maintain parks. Similarly, a server needs to be available to respond to a search query. In fact these are often multiple servers, each that run on electricity and operate within an air conditioned data center.

There is a common saying among privacy activists:

If you are not paying for the product, then you are the product.

This has some truth to it. A company can only operate at a loss for so long therefore the easiest way to monetize is through advertisements. For an advertisement to be effective, the company has to collect information about your behavior patterns.

Expectation of free can drive out competition. Who can compete with a company that is offering their services for free? Knowing this, some large companies often operate at a loss for a certain time period. Why? In order to drive out competition. Google at one point offered unlimited photo storage as long as you saved the photo as “High Quality”. This has since changed in June 2021. This marketing tactic is known as the “bait and switch”. It relies on the fact that it’s often effort for people to change services and that they would instead eat the cost once it’s introduced later on.

I argue that the lack of competition hinders innovation. Currently Google reigns supreme over search. There’s some competition from Bing and other smaller search engines, though the market share isn’t enough for Google to try to improve the product.1

In a world where large tech companies offer expensive services for free. It is hard for a small company to bootstrap and provide a competitive take in the area.2

What about open source? It turns out that there’s often a way to financially support these projects. The ways are varied but they include paying for support, hosting, or even solely donations. I argue that if no funding model exists, then it’s likely for the project to be unsustainable. At the end of the day humans are behind it all and we all require to have our needs met.

Though another interesting component of open source is that it is often driven by the needs of people. Often times when a developer contributes a feature it’s because they want to use the feature themselves. In that way they provide value to the project. I encourage people to contribute to the projects they depend on in some way (if possible), whether financially, through documentation, or code.

  1. Nowadays, it seems that another currently free product ChatGPT is adding competition to the search engine space. Bing is betting on the introduction of large language models into their search engine. It has yet to be shown whether this will be the latest evolution of search. ↩︎

  2. Kagi is a search engine that is taking on this challenge. They have a small free trial, but otherwise require that people pay for their service. I currently pay and am happy with their product. One argument I heard against it is that it’ll never take off and surpass Google. I’m curious, does it need to surpass Google to be sustainable? ↩︎

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