I wish my landlord realised that housing should be free. And why doesn't my favourite restaurant understand that French food should be given away? Also, how come I have to pay to get on the bus? Okay, that sounds silly, but is it any sillier than the idea that Wi-Fi should be free in airports?
Writing at PCWorld.com (our sister publication), David Coursey says: "Having to pay for internet access in airports and other public places is simply stupid." I can't agree. I care a lot about the future of the technology industry, and I don't want to see it make the same dreadful mistake that has hurt the publishing industry so badly.
Newspapers and magazine management made plenty of mistakes that had nothing to do with digital technology. But the very worst mistake was to give the consuming public the idea that content should be free. As a result, hundreds of millions of people read the news for free, with no thought that it costs real money to produce. I'm no free-market capitalist, but I firmly believe that companies need to make a profit; without profits, there won't be much innovation.
No free lunch, no free Wi-Fi
News and Wi-Fi service are commodities, just like cars, housing and food are commodities. Labour and raw materials, as well as the capital to buy them, are the essential ingredients of almost any product or service we might care to own or consume. No money, no commodity - that's a basic economic principle that the digital revolution has done nothing to change.
Google, which sits on billions of dollars, can afford to make a magnanimous gesture such as its recently announced free Wi-Fi at some airports for Christmas, though I bet it will recoup at least some of the cost by placing adverts on the service. This giveaway will also enhance the value of Google's brand, a hard-to-measure but very real economic benefit.
However, few providers are in that enviable position. And they need to charge.
There are plenty of legitimate complaints about air travel: overbooked and overcrowded flights, ridiculous delays and so on. We, the traveling public, have a right to complain because we are paying customers. And we have a right to demand the service that we pay for - again, that we pay for.
The same rules apply, or should apply, in technology.
Good labour merits good pay
I don't write for free; my editors don't edit for free. I know, I know - some of you are going to bring up open source.
Sorry, but that proves my point. Open source has grown in influence and quality in the last few years as business models in the community have evolved. Not too long ago, any open source company that dared post a paid or paid-support enterprise version of its software would be pilloried. But not any more. The recession has put many excellent technologists out of work, but there would be even fewer employed if open source companies were afraid to make a profit, then plow it back into development projects and expanded infrastructure.
Just ask the open source millionaires at MySQL if they think everything they produce should be free.
I'm reminded of the self-help aphorism: "Don't let the perfect get in the way of the good." In this case, I'd say: "Don't let the free get in the way of the possible."