Electronic Design

Are We Paying Too High A Price For Free Services?

The Internet and World Wide Web offer a plethora of free services to all. In many areas, this has brought about extremely positive change by providing access to everything from music and art to a wealth of resources from general facts to specific highly technical data. But there just might be too much free information and too little fact checking. We could become overwhelmed by the volume and the false information that sometimes gets posted on the Internet.

Since the consumerization of the Internet, usage has grown at an almost exponential rate, in part thanks to government support (both federal and state) to supply access in many schools and libraries. Additionally, the rapidly dropping price of PCs and telecommunications access has allowed almost everyone to set up a PC at home with a portal into the Internet, and to create a Web site that can be hosted by an individual's service provider.

Much of the first information posted on the Web was put there as a free resource by early users. A large percentage of them had university backgrounds, as the academic and scientific research communities were the pioneering users of the medium. The ideal that information should be free and unfettered was a lofty goal and, to some extent, the availability of the content spurred the Internet's growth.

Many idea-rich developers saw the Internet as a golden opportunity to provide new services (everything from remote medical care to desktop gambling), news and information sources, entertainment, and even distance learning. A large percentage of these tried to start by offering many free services, with the expectation that either advertising support or a switchover to subscription fees would eventually pay for the services. For the most part, that didn't happen and many dot-coms have paid the ultimate price for their overly optimistic financial expectations.

There are still numerous privately funded ventures and public companies that build upon the fundamental Internet services, and many of them are flourishing. Their success is due to their value-added features, such as those that AOL delivers with its portal. Also, sites like eBay host auctions, while retail merchants offer everything from groceries to automobiles to insurance. Although a few have run afoul of the legal system by making it too easy to distribute copyrighted content, most sites keep their services well within the dictates of the law.

The goal of attracting advertising to offset the cost of the Web services offered to the pubic followed the model that radio and television stations have used for decades. However, most Internet users won't tolerate the ads because they detract from valuable online time—especially if the users employ a dial-up service—and take away available screen space from the desired information. Saving time while on the Web has become critical. I would pay for some type of premium service that eliminates much of the distracting advertising. How about you?

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