In trying to come up with something to write about this week, I was talking to a friend about a program we both use called ICQ. This program is available on PCs and you can use it to communicate in real-time with friends and family on the Internet. Since Mirabilis began offering ICQ to the general public, almost 3 million people have signed up for access to their servers -- required to make use of the program. ICQ has become very popular in the months following it's initial release. Up until this point, the program and access to the their servers have been "free" and, from what I can tell, Mirabilis will continue to keep this stuff free during their beta test. They reserve the right to change this policy at any time, however.
Every once in a while, I will get a "message" from one of my friends on ICQ that are "outraged" by the fact that Mirabilis will charge for the use of ICQ and they encourage you to write a letter of protest to Mirabilis asking them to keep ICQ free. I tend to ignore these messages, but it does bring up a question I think I should discuss here: Who pays for the free stuff on the Internet anyway?
Mirabilis is providing a great service to the Internet right now in providing ICQ for free to the almost 3 million people use the client software, but they are spending a lot of money. Their ICQ servers service almost 900,000 users per day. The full-time people required to maintain those servers, the electricity to run them, and the Internet connectivity for those servers all cost non-trivial amounts of money. Everyone who works for Mirabilis has to live in houses, eat food and use some form of transportation to get from home to work. Generally, the activities of daily living involve some cost.
Much like in television land, most of the "free" web sites and services out there that could be considered sources of news, information, or entertainment are supplemented by some sort of advertising. The money they make in advertising fees pays for the "costs" involved in running the web site or service to keep it free. The advertising model works well on television, but it hasn't completely proven itself on the Internet yet. Few Internet-based companies have turned a profit on this model. And if you're not in the business to make money, what are you in business for anyway?
Mirabilis doesn't seem to be using the advertising model, at least right now. So how else are they going to make money? They're gonna have to make money in some other manner that would support the "free" use of ICQ or start charge the end-user for their use of ICQ. Should people be upset about this? I think they shouldn't. Mirabilis, as is any software company, is well within it's right to sell software and/or service. We, as consumers, have the right to either buy it or not. If ICQ is as useful as everyone seems to think it is, isn't it worth something to you to keep it going?
There is also the other, much less commercial side to the Internet. One of the great things about the Internet is that it's the great equalizer. Anyone, and I mean anyone, can put up a website about anything they want, and look like they are a big, fancy company. There are a lot of "hey, here is my dog" type websites out there, but there are many other people who maintain useful kinds of information on the web that you would normally have a hard time finding anywhere else. You can find websites on anything from the mundane to the eclectic to the downright bizarre.
One of the first truly useful web pages I designed was an instruction manual on how to set up PPP and SLIP on a Macintosh to use an emulator called SLiRP, which runs on an ordinary Unix shell account and emulates the server-end of a SLIP or PPP connection. I certainly didn't need the instructions on how to do this. But I knew that there were plenty of other people far less sophisticated than me who could use this information. I wrote up a web page that went through how to set up the Macintosh end of things to use this emulator and use it successfully. Thanks to feedback from visitors, the page improved over time. Though the original page was written over two years ago, the pages are still up on my website and I still get a steady stream of people who visit.
My initial motivation for writing that web page was because I wanted to give something back to the Internet community at large. I wasn't looking to make any money off the deal. I just wanted to give something back in a way that I knew how to. That's why people put useful information on their web pages -- because it will benefit someone else. The cost for me to make this information available is very minimal. Most other people who put web sites up put them there because the information on it will benefit someone in some way.
Though I've rambled a bit this week, I do have a point. Most of what
is on the Internet may be free to you, but it costs someone time and money
to put it there and maintain it. If all of a sudden they want to start
charging you to use that resource or do things like add advertising to
the service, keep in mind that it's costing someone time and money to provide
that service and they have every right to make a living. You get paid for
your work, right?