Review: Free: The Future of a Radical Price

Free: The Future of a Radical PriceFree: The Future of a Radical Price by Chris Anderson

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Reading Free: The Future of a Radical Price reminded me, in many ways, of  The Grand Design.

To understand the universe on the quantum level, you have to embrace understandings and facts that seem ludicrous at human scales. That is, that we have free will; that things cannot be in the same place at the same time; that time progresses at one speed and forward only, are all convenient and explicit truths for our day-to-day existence. But at the subatomic level, that’s not how things work; not at all.

Anderson’s arguments about Free — that is, gratis and libre — are presented in the same sense, if not quite as well or explicitly.

Free does a fine job of explaining the mechanics of how things can be free on the Web: namely, per-unit / per-user costs are so low, they might as well be considered nothing.

He also does a good job of explaining the obvious money-making models applied successfully so far: advertising, freemium (basic service is free; premium service costs money) and non-monetary / indirect recompense, such as an increase in reputation / marketing of ancillary products, such as concerts and merchandise for musicians or speaking engagements and consultations for professionals.

Probably the most valuable lesson Anderson’s book provides is that in the information economy, copies cost nothing.

Certainly, the physical cost of the copy is so close to nothing, it might as well be nothing; but Anderson also suggests that the lost “opportunity cost” of not selling that record or book or software is significantly overstated, since there’s a good chance they wouldn’t have been purchased in the first place, and that the auxiliary benefits of spreading a product far and wide outweigh the loss from sales.

Speaking as someone who has pirated content he probably would have purchased if he couldn’t get it for free, I’d call that argument, on its face, pretty spurious.

But it makes perfect sense in view of the base assertion that digital content is going to be stolen, because it’s so easy and the costs / consequences are virtually zero. So don’t put all your effort into preventing theft (but don’t make it completely easy, either); put most of your effort into monetizing your soon-to-be-widespread content.

The reason I can’t give Anderson full credit here is because for someone who so consistently and readily acknowledges that there’s two groups of understanding when it comes to Free — the over-30 crowd, which can’t break free of the “there’s no such thing as a free lunch” model; and the under-30 crowd, which can’t understand copyright or intellectual property to save its life — he sure does a poor job of satiating each others’ curiosity.

It’s one thing to relate the obvious, which is about half of Anderson’s book. It’s another to provide real-life examples of how Free is being monetized, which Anderson does via several sidebars.

What this book lacks is what it needed most: its own version of M-theory, to explain how and why Free is the only model that makes sense here. That is, he went about presenting the information all wrong.

It should have been less anecdotal and more theoretical proof. Had Free set out with a statement of the “rules of the digital economy,” then proceeded to address those rules in order with interlocking and supporting truths, a much more useful book would have been produced.

As it is, Free tells us what we already know, and does little to predict what comes next. It suffices as an introduction to the idea of the economics of the 21st century, but it’s no road map.

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