Free is the new book by Wired Editor “Chris Anderson”. His earlier book “Long Tail” was an acclaimed work that is quoted in almost every conversation with the word “Web” in it over last few years. This book’s title though had the potential to capture the same level of imagination, unfortunately, doesn’t.
First, Chris Anderson should be congratulated for handling such a controversial topic like “Free”. Each of us has our own understanding of the word, how it works, whether it works or not and so on. In trying to answer these questions he has done a good job. He writes his findings on “Free” from history, culture, marketing to economics. He does a great job of explaining how “Free” became popular in modern days, its power and potential. He does a fine job of categorizing various near-zero business models and how they work with examples. He clearly disambiguates English word “Free” into “Gratis” (free of charge) and “Libre” (freedom), often people confuse between the two, especially in the software world. His re-quote of “Information wants to be free” is certainly true and thought-provoking.
Where he falls flat is in his generalizations and in his examples of success stories. For examples, he repeatedly points only to Google and in few cases of open source software & Web 2.0. I am unable to shake off the feeling (of-course unfounded) the book could a PR campaign sponsored by the Mountain View chocolate factory (thanks, Register UK for the term) Google. For me, Google certainly is not the epitome of “Free”, it makes its money by selling advertisements for hard-cash and that’s not free. Wikipedia and FireFox would have been more befitting candidates, but probably Chris Anderson felt obligated to Google – as he was using their free Google Docs to write this book (as he says himself). To be fair to the author, he does quote in two places where Microsoft offers “Free” through its BizSpark program and Internet Explorer. I also fail to understand how he says Apple through its iPod wants content to be free so that it gets paid for the device. iTunes through the sales made from iPod and iPhone are the big money earners for Apple and it is not free!
The other area where I disagree with him is on what seems to be his attempt at equating “Piracy” to “Free”. “Piracy” is stealing, plain and simple. Though many of us may be guilty of the crime (knowingly or unknowingly) to various degree, it can’t be praised or supported. If in China music piracy is rampant, then it is the mistake of pricing, distribution and education. It is certainly not that people there will not buy Music. If Hulu.com and CBS.com today are making some money out of their advertisement driven site it is because the money from advertisements comes to the producers who made the shows, not to the pirates and other video sharing sites. If everyone in the world moves to “Pirated” version of watching TV shows from YouTube, then soon there will be no new professional TV shows to watch. Google too is very much aware of this threat, that’s why it is trying hard to woo producers into building legal channels for them on its site and share revenue with them. The real question is whether this money alone will be sufficient for producers to compensate for their investments. Even in the example, the author begins his book, MontyPython group deciding to put their clips legally free on YouTube – they too made their money by selling legal versions of their CDs and DVDs. If their entire collection is made “free” in YouTube HD then how will they survive to make new episodes. The author leaves us with many of these questions unanswered.
A disclosure: I listened to the Audiobook (Unabridged) version that was offered free of charge by Wired from here. The e-book download seems to be time-limited (for a month and that’s over) and geography limited (The US only) from here. Though I got the entire book free as an audio book, this limited free distribution of the e-book seems to be more a 20th century free, than the 21st century free that the author preaches throughout the book. He should have known better, he says repeatedly that “Free” is the most powerful marketing tool ever invented and he should have known to handle it with better for his book.
My recommendation: If you are in the Internet/Software business then this book is a must-read, but for others, you may want to think twice before opening your wallet to buy it. You may want to listen to the free audiobook like I did :-)