Should all software be free??

I had an argument with a colleague yesterday regarding the cost for software. He believes that software should be free, as epitomized by Google, Linux etc. I am not totally against this idea, as I believe in the adage- ” All information wants to be free”.

I was reading a great book last week on the concept of free by Chris Davidson- “Free: The Future of a Radical Price’. Anderson argues that there is a continuing pressure decreasing prices of all things “made of ideas.” He says that in the digital realm you can try to keep Free at bay with laws and locks, but eventually the force of economics will win.”  He says that musicians should stop complaining about their music being pirated, and instead capitalize on the added free exposure that piracy provides by making money through touring, merchandise sales. He argues that the sale of their music to people who want to legally buy their music online. or on CDs will offset the loss from piracy.”

The digital age has so transformed the ways in which things are made and sold that there are no iron laws. In Anderson’s words- “Give a product away, and it can go viral. Charge a single cent for it and you’re in an entirely different business. The truth is that zero is one market and any other price is another.” He illustrates this by citing an experiment by a MIT professor. The professor offered two kinds of chocolate to his subjects—Hershey’s Kisses, for one cent, and Lindt truffles, for fifteen cents. Three-quarters of the subjects chose the truffles. He repeated the experiment, with the price of both chocolates reduced by one cent. The Kisses were now free. Surprisingly, the  order of preference was reversed. Majority of the subjects chose the Kisses. The price difference between the two chocolates was exactly the same, but that magic word “free” has the power to create a consumer stampede.

Due to the abundance of information in the digital world, Anderson argues, the magic of the word “free” creates instant demand among consumers in a market of plenty, and represents a special opportunity. Companies ought to be able to make huge amounts of money “around” the thing being given away—as Google gives away its search and e-mail and makes its money on advertising.  He argues that because it costs next to nothing to make things in the digital worl, we can afford to be wasteful.

He also explains how “free” in many cases does not mean that in the literal sense. Google sells ads on its “free” search and email pages.  Amazon’s free shipping mantra for purchases over 25 dollars depends on a sizable number of customers buying an extra item just to qualify for the 25 dollars free shipping offer, thereby helping overall sales figures. He argues that the free blog or free podcast builds a reputation for the modern journalist.

I would argue that in medical field, hospitals with free educational seminars online or those that offer “free” observer posts and allow students and visiting physicians to access their teaching archives have a greater reputation in the academic community. I used to purchase DVDs for CME purposes from university programs etc in the past, but more recently the availability of free presentations from organizations like the RSNA, ECR and the International Society of Radiology make buying these DVDs a less attractive option.

So does this mean that eventually software will be free? I think not. Anderson notes that Lewis Strauss, the former head of the Atomic Energy Commission,  famously predicted in the mid-nineteen-fifties that “our children will enjoy in their homes electrical energy too cheap to meter.” This optimism was probably driven by the fuel cost of nuclear energy—which was so low compared with its fossil-fuel counterparts that he considered it close enough to free to round down to zero. He did not account for the costs of the expensive infrastructure of transmission lines and power plants—and it is this infrastructure that accounts for most of the cost of electricity. Fuel prices are only a small part of that.

This is typical of the errors that technological utopians make, says Malcolm Gladwell, reviewing Anderson’s book in the  New York Times. He says that these utopians assume that their particular scientific revolution will wipe away all traces of its predecessors—that if you change the fuel you change the whole system. However, there are costs that will appear over time. Likewise, cost of maintaining servers, security, backup, upgrades and maintenance are some of the hidden costs that will add to the cost of “free” software and computers.

Do you think “free” is always reliable? I think it depends on who is offering this “free”lunch and what hidden benefits they hope to get from it.  I would love to know what people think of “free” software, free presentations, free journal access and how this changes the way we utilize the digital world. Basically, is there a equivalent of a “free lunch” in the digital world?

Links to free audiobook unabridged version of Chris Anderson’s book is available at www.audible.com (I think that this offer is valid only for US customers) .

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About Sanjay Prabhu

Pediatric radiologist working at one of the world's largest children's hospitals. I love gadgets, technology and anything with a chip in it!

Posted on October 2, 2009, in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink. 2 Comments.

  1. rupa sadvi and poonam!!!!

    hey sanjay!!!
    We re hanging here at Sadvi’s house in Maine. NICE blog. U are bright man!! Even though your title heading spells “practicing” wrong!!!!
    P.s: Sadvi and poonam dont want to point out any errors in the name of diplomacy!!
    P.S 2: Just kidding. We r proud of yur achievements!

  2. On the other hand most of medicine operates on a sort of free software model. Imagine if you had to pay a license fee to the estate of Hans Seldinger each time you used his techniquel. Of course, there was a development cost for the technique. Seldinger presumably had a salary and this was funded either through the state, insurers or patient fees.

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