Free: R.I.P.

Wow! In a strange turn of events, Chris Anderson got it all wrong, while Malcolm Gladwell got it right. What’s that? Free. Chris Anderson thinks it is the future of price; that companies should give their products away free and find other, magical ways to generate revenue. Gladwell roundly criticizes this idea; it’s worth reading his review because his critique is effective on several levels.

Moving on…I want to make some crazy predictions here. Free is dead. It’s a Ponzi scheme, and we’re all invested in it. We all love free, but it has a price. We all think advertising will pay for everything, but in the end, something has to pay for advertising, and that something is in a recession.

Subscription was the model for media for a long time. In the last century, advertising subsidized subscription, and in some markets, subsumed it. In the 21st century, we’re going to have to start paying for things again.

Would you be willing to pay for sites such as the New York Times (as many people, myself include, do for the top-tier reporting of the Journal)? Would the tradeoff be worthwhile if there were less advertisements? What if, assuming that websites are wealth maximizing, these sites charge subscription fees, continue to advertise, and continue to sell users’ information? Would you be willing to demand more from publications if you actually paid for them?

The next crazy prediction: free is going to create a backlash similar to the anti-Wal-Mart movement.