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.