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The Free-Versus-Pay Tactic of the Internet Age

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Link-Up Digital

First it’s free. Then it’s not.

We’re all used to free premium channel offers from cable TV companies only to see these channels cost later, then see cable prices rise steeply once we’re locked into our viewing habits.

For years software companies have offered free trial versions of software that expired after a given period of use.

The free-versus-pay dialectic continues to play out on the Internet today, with software, websites, newspaper and magazine subscriptions, and books.

People typically love free. But there’s nothing of course inherently wrong with businesses charging consumers for services they consume. Companies such as Google and Facebook, which obtain the bulk of their revenue from advertising, can afford to give more away for free. Others need to charge in order to pay workers, suppliers, and stockholders.

Microsoft recently began offering free apps for Apple iPhone users to let them create and edit Office documents, specifically Word, Excel, and PowerPoint. This follows the release earlier this year of the same free app for the Apple iPad. Microsoft is planning an Office app for Android tablets. An Office app for Android phones already exists.

Microsoft is trying to gain ground from suppliers of mobile apps such as Apple, Google, and Evernote.

To use advanced features with either iPhone or iPads, however, you need to pay for an Office 365 subscription. This costs from $6.99 to $9.99 per month for home users and from $5.00 to $12.50 per user per month for business users.

Subscriptions like this point to a related trend in the digital world. Companies such as Microsoft make more money when they can get you to pay them every month or every year rather than your making a one-time purchase.

As you might expect, many consumers object to having to continually be opening their wallets. Adobe created a firestorm of protest in 2013 when it made its high-end programs, including Photoshop, Illustrator, and InDesign subscription only. With one-time purchases, you can skip paying for one or more rounds of upgrades if you want. With subscriptions, you have to keep paying to use the software.

Office from Microsoft is still available as a one-time purchase. But it’s not known if Microsoft in the future will follow Adobe’s lead. For years companies such as IBM and Oracle have supplied big companies with software only by subscription.

The subscription model and high prices for one-time purchases of some programs have encouraged the popularity of free alternatives, which may be as good, or nearly as good, as the pay competition.

LibreOffice and Google Docs, both office suites, are good examples. LibreOffice is free for all users, and Google Docs for most users, with business use starting at $5 per month. Both are Office-compatible, but compatibility when using advanced features isn’t 100%, which is the biggest negative of both.

Information may want to be free, but some websites, newspapers, and magazines are now charging for access. Many membership websites are for niche audiences willing to pay for information they can’t find as easily elsewhere., for genealogical research, costs from $19.99 to $44.99 per month.

The New York Times lets you read up to 10 articles per month online for free. But beginning in 2011, it started requiring readers who want more to pay for a subscription. Fees start at $3.75 per month. charges a subscription fee of $6.95 per month, or $20 per year for existing magazine subscribers. Harper’s provides the content of its magazine for free online but only if you’re an existing subscriber.

Many magazines still provide online access for free to gain advertising revenue, to attract subscribers, and as a service to readers. Others have “paywalls,” offering some articles for free, with the full contents available only as a subscription.

The world of ebook subscriptions has heated up lately. Scribd now offers unlimited access to its catalog of 500,000 books for $8.99 per month, including titles from major publishers such as HarperCollins and Simon & Schuster.

Scribd is trying to draw customers away from Amazon’s Kindle Unlimited, the largest online book player today. Kindle Unlimited charges $9.99 per month for unlimited access to 700,000 books.

Don’t think that just because you find content for free on the Internet, you can freely do what you want with it. According to U.S. law, the text, pictures, music, and videos you come across online are copyrighted the moment they’re created.

This means, for the most part, you can’t legally republish without the person’s permission.

Reid Goldsborough is a syndicated columnist and author of the book Straight Talk About the Information Superhighway. He can be reached at or

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