free=beta

Don’t we all love the new web? Whether you call it web 2.0 or social networking, it’s great because usually it’s easy, interactive, collaborative, and creative. Usually you don’t have to even download anything. Best of all, it’s free.

Well, it’s common wisdom that nothing is really free. Or at least not once it has left the beta stage. The great, new free stuff is always still in development. Get ready to enter your paypal information once gold status is reached and the service has you hooked.

The latest case I’m aware of is YackPack, which stopped its free service on July 15, 2007. If you’re not familiar with it, it is an online voiceboard – easy to use and accessible from wherever there’s a browser. It offers RSS feeds (“yackcasts”), text infos, a walkie talkie feature,… You can still test it for free, but the normal service (i.e. more than 10 seconds of audio per message) will set you back $4.95 a month. Still much cheaper than Wimba, but still.
I know, I know, the creators need to earn money, after all they are delivering a great product. On the other hand, this will turn many users away: the simplicity is gone, and with it its magic. Once I have to enter more than a user name, e-mail address and password I’m turned off. Too much work, not flexible enough, too much commitment in a world of quickly changing offers. Too much investment because the next start-up with a similar concept might offer their services again for free – in beta, of course.

You see, we are addicted to these free, flexible, and wonderful new solutions. We can experiment, play, push the envelope. That’s life in beta. It reminds me of the www beginnings, of the energy, the creativity, the chaos, the anarchy, the wonders and the possibilities. But puberty is transitory, and soon maturity kicks in, with all its regulations, responsibilities, and certainly the wish for a regular paycheck.

If this trend holds true, we can already see great, free beta services asking for our money some time in the future. I really hope that great resources, such as Chinswing, Singshot, or Wordchamp’s free web reader, among others, will remain to be free. I hope that companies can find smarter ways to earn money. I like Skype‘s approach, which offers very solid services for free, but let’s you add pay services as you need. It also creates revenue through product sales and certification.

So let’s hope that someone else will make a new, free yackpack. One that’ll always be beta.

Felix Kronenberg is working at Rhodes College in Memphis, TN. His research interests include academic space design, video games and language learning, digital storytelling, and the culture of advertising. He teaches German and language pedagogy, and maintains the Language Technology Boot Camp blog and web site.

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