What we'll pay for on the Web

Digitization makes content completely free, which most of us actually don't want, at least not most of the time. Instead, we'll happily pay for filters to make digital abundance manageable.

Matt Asay Contributing Writer
Matt Asay is a veteran technology columnist who has written for CNET, ReadWrite, and other tech media. Asay has also held a variety of executive roles with leading mobile and big data software companies.
Matt Asay
3 min read

Information doesn't want to be free. It wants to be managed.

We live in the midst of a digital cornucopia that our brains simply cannot manage without help. Whether it's our 150 Facebook-friend limit or our ability to find and store iTunes songs, we need help processing the sheer abundance of digital goods.

Yes, we *will* pay...sometimes
Importantly, we're generally willing to pay for this help.

Sure, most of us will take something for free if we can. Just ask the music industry, which has been battered by peer-to-peer piracy.

But not all of us. And not all of the time. I may think my news should be free while being perfectly happy to pay for my music downloads. Each person has priorities that define which content to buy and which content to download for free.

Nick Carr recognizes this in analyzing The New York Times' attempts to convince some people, some of the time, to pay for news content. While some mock The Times' strategy, suggesting that with a few clicks it's easy to circumvent the need to ever pay, Carr points out the foolishness of this view:

It assumes that everyone wants to bop around on the web all day trolling different sources for stories. It also assumes everyone is a scheming hacker who, to avoid having to fork out a few bucks, will click links in the Times twitter feed or otherwise figure out some geeky way to get around the system.

But not everyone's like that. In fact, most people aren't like that. Some people just want to go to a few trusted outlets for most of their news--sources rather than links define their news-gathering behavior--and some subset of that group will likely be willing to pay something for the convenience of having free run of a trusted site. (The iTunes store has revealed that a substantial set of people will happily pay money for digital music files that they could fairly easily scrounge up for free elsewhere on the web.)

Bingo. Convenience still pays. It's why people pay for a Red Hat Enterprise Linux (RHEL) subscription when they can get the same bits from CentOS--or effectively the same bits from Canonical (Ubuntu) or Novell (Suse). It's why I buy "Jane Eyre" on my Kindle instead of just downloading a free version.

And it's why O'Reilly Media can dump DRM for its e-books and still see sales rise 104 percent, according to BoingBoing.

It turns out that we happily pay money to save time, as former MySQL CEO Marten Mickos might say. Super-abundance digital content is great, but it just takes too much time.

Businesses like Google, Apple, etc. give us a reprieve--a reprieve for which we'll pay.

Redmonk analyst Stephen O'Grady suggests the future of digital content businesses is data. Give away the content and monetize the data that results from tracking your customers' behavior with it.

Maybe. This model certainly pays nice dividends for Google with its advertising model.

But just as often we'll see business models based on convenience-enhancing filters. We simply can't process all the abundance that digitization offers, and we'll happily pay someone to pare it down for us and make our music, software, and movies manageable.