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is there such a thing as ‘free’?

summary:
(to save you the need of reading this whole blathering post)

if you like a ‘free’ service enough to use it regularly, give something back.
(that’s it, really. if you’re incredibly bored, though, please read on.)

free is a deceiving concept, on closer inspection. using my favorite online dictionary, i find 36 possible variations on the definition of this word. they’re all pretty much what you’d expect, but i want to focus on the monetary aspect, right now, and this definition is the most applicable:

11.     provided without, or not subject to, a charge or payment
dictionary.com

well, duh, right? not much to argue with there. we see and hear it all around us in ads on television, the internet, newspapers, magazines, billboards, radio ads, and so on. generally, in such cases, it’s something like

get [insert product here] free*

* with purchase of second item of equal or greater value.
or
* after mail-in rebate
or
* with purchase of 2-year all-in-one mobile plan
etc.

and (i sincerely hope) few of us are truly convinced that we’re getting something truly free. either we’re getting two items at half price, or we’re paying a premium for a service such as a long-term contract (which certainly has factored in the cost of any loss of the ‘free’ item, and then some), or we’re at least paying for the postage to send the mail-in rebate (which, of course, companies certianly hope we’ll forget to do, anyway).

however, these are the obvious ones, the gimmicks, and these aren’t what i’m referring to. what i’m taking forever to get around to talking about is the use of ‘free’ in relation to all the variety of services the internet provides. it is now a genuine rarity to find any type of software or internet-based service that doesn’t have some form of free service, be it a temporarily enabled version of an office productivity suite, the first few ‘levels’ of a video game, a permanently usable but ‘lite’ version of a music player, or a full-featured open-sourced development suite designed by people with a genuine passion for finding a better way of doing whatever it is they do and wanting others to benefit from that.

i’ve been in the web dev world, at various levels, for ten years, now (which still surprises me), and i’ve used a wide variety of these free and ‘lite’ versions and services. some have helped me work, while others have entertained me, and some have even done both. these options allow us to try before we buy, which is a critical need in this age of massive variety, where it seems there are a thousand different creators of each type of product, particularly when we look past the one or two big names in each arena. For example, beyond Windows MediaPlayer and Apple’s iTunes, there are many excellent and solid audio/video players out there, several of which are simpler and cleaner, some of which are more powerful, and all of which have some form of free version, whether it’s ‘lite’ or temporary. a quick glance at cnet’s download.com is only the beginning.

are we there yet, bill?

sorry. almost there.

recently, i had a go ’round with my hosting provider, which was painful. and that was for a service i pay money for. which got me thinking about what i don’t pay for and don’t have  any problems with.

like this absolutely fabulous WordPress blogging tool, which is 100% free.

or Andreas’ Viklund’s great design templates (and it appears i’ve already settled on the simple beauty of his 3-column Daleri Sweet, which you see here), also 100% free.

or the Pandora internet radio site, which has introduced me to some great new additions to my personal physical CD collection (and re-introduced me to even more).

or the quick and easy Any FLV Converter software I use to shrink bloated videos to miniscule sizes with minimum effort and maximum quality.

not to mention National Public Radio, which may not be perfect, but is so much better than the regular tv broadcasts (we only have very basic cable, mind you), that i haven’t ‘watched’ the news in probably 10 years.

or my local independent radio station WCLZ. i may not always like what they play, i alwyas like that they play it.

or my local library (and their cookies on saturday mornings).

or the local hiking and snowmobiling trails which are our favorite (and only) place to give the dog a genuine walk.

…but you get the point.

yes, yes, donate to good causes and all that. we’ve all heard it before.

fair enough, but i did warn you at the beginning.

so i was talking (ages ago, now) about the definition of ‘free’. it seems to me that nothing is free. that the concept itself is an impossibility. everything has a cost. whether it’s a cost to the creator or the recipient, it’s there. from the hours/weeks/months/years of product development to the cost of a postage stamp and everywhere in between.

i don’t mean this in a bad way, though. having a cost isn’t a downside, it’s a simple reality. for example, i don’t mind paying taxes, because i like having services like fire & rescue in my town and police and lights at the intersection and a post office and snowplows during the storms and electricity and internet service and public water and public schools and so on. i may not like that they’re so high, but then it’s my obligation to partake in town government, if i want to change it (which i haven’t so i have no grounds to complain).

however, when the cost is not to the recipient, does that mean the item in question is free? and if not, am i saying we should not use the free versions of things?

of course not. the ‘try before you buy’ feature is still great, and highly necessary in this world where it’s commonplace to put out broken software and assume patches will be coming (thank you, Microsoft, for that innovation).

in my case, though, i found that i’ve been using several of these free services for up to a year, often more, and that didn’t feel right. particularly today, if i’m still using something even six months later, that’s practically unheard of, and i realized that the creator/maintainer of that thing deserves something in return.

so i started using the ‘donate’ buttons, or sending checks. these aren’t significant donations, mind you. i’m not a starving writer, by any means, but we do have a mortgage and we’re actively working on our debt. that said, i can spare a few dollars here and there, to thank the people whose work i use and enjoy.

i look forward to the day when i can do more, but for now i do what i can, when i can, because these people have done the same. i will likely never meet any of them, and they will likely never know i use their work, though i try to leave notes when i can, but that’s not really the point, is it?

12.     given without consideration of a return or reward
dictionary.com

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