There IS such a thing as a free lunch

Free stuff is awesome.

Unfortunately, free stuff has historically been subject to the what I call the “two immutable principles of free stuff.”

  1. You get what you pay for
  2. Nothing is truly free

But I’m starting to notice that these principles are becoming less and less immutable as time goes on.

Lets look at number one:* You get what you pay for.* Given the option of purchasing three bicycles, you may initially be tempted just to get the cheapest one. But the careful consumer doesn’t base their purchases on price alone. In most cases, price is an indicator of quality. If the cheap bicycle breaks after a year, then congratulations, you have just purchased an expensive pile of useless metal. Likewise a free car from your uncle isn’t that great if you spend hundreds of hours (or dollars) over the next year trying to fix it as it repeatedly breaks down. In short, if you don’t pay much, you aren’t getting much. And free isn’t very much.

Except in the case of Google. Google consistently makes high quality products, and then just sticks them out on the internet for anyone to use for free. Think of all the storage space you have in your Gmail account. What do other companies charge you for 8 gigs of online storage?

iCloud: $20/year (for 15 gigs)
Go-daddy: $60/year (for 10 gigs, and a hosting package)
Amazon S3: $5.04/year (for 8 gigs, even though the first 5 are free)

Granted, many of Google’s services have free alternatives elsewhere on the internet (like blogger, youtube, picasa, and google+). But what about Google Docs, Google Analytics, or Google Earth? If you want to get products like these elsewhere, then you better pull out your wallet. Now, companies like Skype and Mint are following in Google’s footsteps, offering their own high quality stuff for free. It is getting more and more common to get much more than you pay for, especially when it comes to software.

Unfortunately, Google’s services don’t pass the litmus test when held up to the second principle: nothing is truly free. Google doesn’t charge a penny but their services do come with a price: your personal information. That’s right, Mommy bloggers, Google looks at your blog posts to decide what to advertise to you. Not only that, but your search queries, your emails, and your activities on Google Chrome… all of it is carefully used by Google to make your ads more relevant to you. While I don’t bemoan the fall of internet privacy (I’d rather see ads for calculator watches and high quality pens than ads for cigarettes and beer) giving up your personal information is still a price.

People always say, “There ain’t no such thing as a free lunch.” They are usually right. It’s true in economics (every free option has an opportunity cost). It’s true in thermodynamics (there is no energy transfer without losses). It’s true in government (even the 47% of Americans who enjoy public schools and police protection without paying income taxes have lower incomes due to payroll taxes and more expensive products due to tariffs and sales taxes). But once again, I’m starting to see more and more things that are truly free. Knowledge is becoming free, as we see better sources for free books, online learning, and access to content for higher education. The open source software movement is bringing a ton of great products that come at literally no price to the end user (besides the space it occupies on their hard drives). This ranges from popular applications like Firefox, Wordpress, and OpenOffice, to higher level technology like MediaWiki, MySQL, or Apache.

It’s true, most of this free stuff is computer/internet related. With software, the cost of each additional copy is essentially zero, making it really easy to distribute for free. However, online communication is also making it possible to get tangible things for free. The Freecycle network allows you to claim used items that other people are about to get rid of. Things like clothing, furniture, baby supplies, toys, and even food! It’s so popular in Provo that you have to literally jump on posted items before they are claimed by someone else (Ok, not “literally”).

With the internet as young as it is, I’m convinced we’re only in the beginning stages of a free revolution. So, if you’re like me, and you like free stuff, it’s a good day to be alive.