New tech and the concept of “free”

There?s an irritating trend I?m noticing more often with new technology offered up online: It starts as the curious and technologically adept download apps, read from new publications, and sign up for services with a lot of buzz and discussion on Twitter, Facebook and blogs. Many are free but some of the most interesting, from huge music streaming services to small scale, members only audio content are not.

It’s on these payment models which give many pause. Clich?d arguments usually appear which emphasize how online models only succeed when they are free, and how many equally good free alternatives already exist. The majority move on to other options.

That’s a problem.

Free always has a cost. I?ve downloaded ?free? apps that crash, are rarely updated, or have pixelated, annoying ads that waste my time. I?ve read from ?free? blogs that carbon copy press releases with little insight or unique analysis. I?ve watched ?free? video clips that are poorly edited and produced.

Really standout services and content, especially the small, specialized, and unique, often can?t cut it with just banner advertising or angel investors. That?s when it?s time to quit with the excuses, pull out the wallet and just pay.

Costs are small

If putting my money behind the online option was close to so much of what costs are offline (e.g. $5 for magazines, premium TV channels for $10 a month), I might balk. Yet the majority of paid content that I’ve encountered and currently use fall into the $5 or less a month range. That’s the cost of a latte or two subway rides here in NYC, yet what I’m getting back online is often staggering: Unlimited streaming music from a nine million strong library (Rdio), HD video content updated daily with clips often running an hour or longer (Whiskey Media) or a gorgeous, clean interface for reading along with payments to the publishers I read from (Readability).

Don’t discount content from smaller services either; in my case a $3 or less a month payment gets insights, analysis and opinion I can’t get anywhere else (The MacCast, Shawn Blanc). It’s content also updated and produced at a pace far faster than any $3 periodical or newspaper.

Pay for growth

It?s also sometimes worth financially supporting strong ideas just have them grow into something larger. For example, I don?t gain extra content or bonus features by supporting the Slashfilmcast or Instapaper with additional payment, yet I pay for both; It supports each product?s internal growth while at the same time encouraging the development of other related content and services. Look to Instapaper?s initial success and Readability?s emergence afterward, or novel iPhone apps like Podcaster, with more refined competitors like Instacast and Pocket Casts appearing later.

Who I financially support and recommend

  • The overwhelming majority of iPad periodicals from major publishers like Cond? Nast are cumbersome, bloated and expensive; that’s exactly why the new monthly gaming mag Atomix feels fresh. It has excellent video and graphic production values, a mixed multimedia experience that feels custom made for the tablet format, and at $0.99 an issue is very affordable.
  • The aforementioned Rdio delivers its strong music selection via a simple, well thought out UI that relies on users following each other to get further music recommendations. It’s akin to Twitter for music fans and works well.
  • A membership with Whiskey Media delivers exclusive high quality news, forums, and (most relevant to me) HD video content on technology, movies and games that I can kick back and watch on my HDTV.
  • Readability, as I reviewed recently, provides a great, minimal interface for organizing and de cluttering everything I find interesting to read online, along with a payment format for smaller publishers.
  • Typekit is a great subscription based resource for getting a huge selection of high quality, custom fonts for use on websites. I currently use it for this blog with plans to expand the service?s font library to other web projects.
  • I consider the Slashfilmcast the best movie and TV podcast around, delivering consistently insightful and humorous content each week. An extra few bucks each year their way is money well spent.