Want a good product? Pay for it

Freebies have nearly killed the newspaper industry. Now, demands for free Wi-Fi and other services could have a terrible effect on the technology industry

I wish my landlord realized that housing should be free. And why doesn't that excellent restaurant in my neighborhood understand that French food should be given away? Also, how come I have to pay to get on the bus? Sure, that sounds silly, but is it any sillier than a prominent blogger's whine that Wi-Fi should be free in airports?

Writing at PCWorld.com (our sister publication), the normally sensible David Coursey says, "Having to pay for Internet access in airports and other public places is simply stupid." Sorry, but that's a really, well, stupid opinion. I don't really care what Coursey thinks, but I care a lot about the future of the technology industry -- and I don't want to see it make the same dreadful mistake that has damn near killed much of the publishing industry.

[ InfoWorld's Robert X. Cringely looks at Fox News' latest war: ending the Google-powered free news market before there are no newspapers left. ]

Newspapers and magazine management made plenty of mistakes -- arrogance, money-grubbing and lack of imagination,  to name just three -- that had nothing to do with digital technology. But the very worst mistake was to give the consuming public the idea that content should be free. As a result, hundreds of millions of people read the news for free, with no thought that it cost real money to produce. I'm no free-market capitalist, but I firmly believe that companies need to make a profit; without profits, there won't be much innovation.

No free lunch, no free Wi-Fi
News and Wi-Fi service are commodities, just like cars, housing, and food are commodities. Labor and raw materials, as well as the capital to buy them, are the essential ingredients of most any good or service we might care to own or consume. No money, no commodity -- that's a basic economic principle that the digital revolution has done nothing to change.

Google, which sits on billions of dollars, can afford to make a magnanimous gesture such as its recently announced free Wi-Fi at some airports for the holidays, though I bet it will recoup at least some of the cost by placing ads on the service. This giveaway will also enhance the value of Google's brand, a hard-to-measure but very real economic benefit. Few providers are in that enviable position. They need to charge.

I'm dumbfounded when Coursey writes, "Airports and airlines should offer free Internet because keeping customers happy, productive, and occupied is a good thing while they wait for their planes. Don't we already pay enough for everything else at airports?"

Excuse me? You mean you can't sit for a couple of hours without YouTube? You could read a book or (gasp) a newspaper or a magazine. You could work offline. If you have to use e-mail or the Web, pay a few bucks for it. Why shouldn't you?

What bothers me is his sense of entitlement. Coursey is mad because airport food costs too much. It does, so when I fly, I bring my lunch. If I don't remember to, it's my problem. Go hungry or spend a few bucks on a sandwich. What's wrong with that?

There are plenty of legitimate complaints about air travel: overbooked and overcrowded flights, ridiculous delays, and so on. We, the traveling public, have a right to complain because we are paying customers. And we have a right to demand the service that we pay for -- again, that we pay for.

The same rules apply, or should apply, in technology.

Don't tether until the network is ready
I've consumed plenty of pixels beating on AT&T's crummy service and arrogant attitude. I beat on Apple as well when I think it's merited (as do my colleagues). Aside from the question of free speech and my role as an advocate, I have the moral authority to pick on both of those companies because I'm a paying customer.

When I spend $30 a month to buy Internet access for my iPhone, I deserve to get it, but I don't expect AT&T to give it to me for free. If I'm a paying enterprise customer, I have the right to expect that Apple software won't violate normal security practices. (Read the article that set off the controversy over Apple's handling of the iPhone's Exchange policy support. And learn how this is not the first time Apple had quietly fixed a policy bug in the iPhone.)

Yes, I'm a consumer advocate, but I believe consumers have responsibilities as well -- and one of those is to be realistic.

Let's think about AT&T and its still unfulfilled promise to allow tethering of the iPhone to PCs. Sure, I'd love to be able to take advantage of that technology. But if AT&T's network can't support the increase in traffic that tethering would undoubtedly engender, the company shouldn't deliver until the network can support it. Otherwise, its 3G service will be even worse than it is now -- and that's saying something. Meanwhile, we paying AT&T customers have the right to demand (loudly) that AT&T put its network house in order.

Good labor merits good pay
I don't write for free, my editors don't edit for free, and I'll bet your IT hands don't run networks or produce code for free. I know, I know -- some of you are going to bring up open source.

Sorry, that proves my point. Open source has grown in influence and quality in the last few years as business models in the community have evolved. Not too long ago, any open source company that dared post a paid or paid-support enterprise version of its software would be pilloried. But not any more. The recession has put many excellent technologists out of work, but there would be even fewer employed if open source companies were afraid to make a profit, then plow it back into development projects and expanded infrastructure.

Just ask the open source millionaires at MySQL if they think everything they produce should be free.

I'm reminded of the self-help aphorism: "Don't let the perfect get in the way of the good." In this case, I'd say, "Don't let the free get in the way of the possible."

I welcome your comments, tips, and suggestions. Contact me at bill.snyder@sbcglobal.net.

This story, "Want a good product? Pay for it," was originally published at InfoWorld.com. Follow Bill Snyder's Tech's Bottom Line blog at InfoWorld.com.