Tom MacWright

Free services

The state of how much things are priced ($) and whether things are free (freedom):

  • Modules, libraries, frameworks, and other pieces of code are, by default, free and open source. There’s little reason to keep this kind of code closed. This iteration of startup-land is built on free components.
  • Applications are usually free and rarely open source. In contrast to modules and lower-level code, applications require lots of customer service and typically attract few contributors. Few people volunteer to do customer service, but lots of people volunteer to contribute code. Hence, libraries and modules are more popular as volunteer-based projects.
  • Services are often free at low levels of usage but almost never free at high levels of usage. This is because the price of web servers, transfer, and storage has not decreased significantly when you’re working at scale. Also, high-scale services require devops people - previously, roughly, known as system admins - to keep things running. While this is an enjoyable job for masochists and order muppets, it’s not something that people typically do for free. Hence, services are rarely purely volunteer projects.

Most services that are free are free-as-in-price because someone, somewhere, has written lots and lots of grant applications. Their costs are supported by:

  • OpenStreetMap is funded by membership fees, corporate donations, and conference sponsorships.
  • Wikipedia is funded primarily by donations.
  • Metafilter was funded by ads, until that revenue decreased by 40% and they started encouraging recurring donations.
  • The Census Geocoder is funded by US Government tax revenue.
  • Stamen’s free maps service was initially funded by the Knight Foundation, and is now based on a combination of donations and, probably, revenues from the business.
  • The Internet Archive is a 501(c)(3) and is funded by foundations like Knight & Alfred P. Sloan

Foundation, tax, and donation-supported services are great, but we shouldn’t confuse price with cost, or lack of venture-capital uncertainty with a guarantee of longevity.