Talking tech since 2003

There’s something fundamentally different about the way we treat Web-based apps and services, versus the way we used to treat disk-based software. I can’t say that I knew anyone growing up who demanded free, custom-developed copies of WordPerfect. But users seem to be angry that Yahoo wants to better monetize its free email service (h/t TechCrunch). Perhaps it stems from the idea that the Internet is seen as a “right.” It has always been trumpeted as a place where all the world’s information can be exchanged freely; maybe somewhere along the way, we started to include the tools to create and consume that information in our “rights.”

The way we pay for these apps and services is also very different from the past. Instead of paying once for a finished piece of software, we may not be paying a single dime for a Web-based app that is constantly improving and changing. In that case, the currency in play is our personal information, and, by handing it over, we’re allowing the provider of that app or service to target us more effectively with advertising.

gmail-adBecause the company isn’t charging for that email service, or that social network that helps us keep tabs on 600 friends, those ads help to keep the lights on. Those ads help that company make money, hire employees and pump more money back into the economy. Those ads are necessary because we aren’t paying anything. We’re getting a free ride, and though we are giving up some of our privacy, that was no secret before we signed up.

You wouldn’t get that impression from a lot of Internet users, though. These entitled users somehow feel that, despite voluntarily using a free service to which there are multitudes of alternatives, they are the victims. Yahoo users who are angry about email ads can switch to any number of different email providers or simply host their own email servers for a small monthly sum. Facebook users who don’t like ads or hate constant layout changes can jump over to Path, or even MySpace — trust me, they’d love to have you.

The list goes on and on. You don’t want to hand your financial information over to Mint? Buy a copy of Quicken. You don’t like that Google keeps track of all your searches? Try DuckDuckGo or go back to the old way of searching for things — the library. I think you get the point. For every free Web app or service you’re using, you can probably find a suitable paid alternative or a free one that doesn’t infringe on your privacy as much. Are they as good or as useful? You’ll have to be the judge of that.

I can tell you that, personally, I do not care for ads. But I use Google Search, Google Drive, YouTube, Google Maps, Gmail, Facebook, Flipboard, Feedly and so on without paying a single red cent. These are best-in-class applications and services and I don’t even want to think about how much they’d cost if each one charged a monthly fee. But they don’t. I knew going in that they’d gather information about me and display ads, and I went ahead anyway because that’s the price in order to keep dollars and cents in my own pocket. The company is taking all of the risk and I get to keep my money.

And if I truly dislike the way an app or service is operating, I can go use something else. I don’t know how you feel about it, but that sounds like a pretty good deal to me.

We all need to get over the idea that we have the right to gripe about a free service simply because we’re handing over our information to use it. Can you trade a list of your interests for a Big Mac? Will Apple sell you an iMac if you print off a list of your recent Google searches? No? That’s because your information isn’t money and, all by itself, it isn’t that valuable.

We aren’t paying customers. We’re filling out a card with our name and address in exchange for a free buffet, and then we’re complaining about the food.

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