The Meaning of Free

I have fallen in love with Pandora, a web based “radio station.” If you have not tried it, you register for free, and then put in a song you like, and Pandora takes that song and develops a playlist of similar songs. I have found that it has a vast repository of songs and have built separate stations for jazz, rock, and classical music. It makes great background music for the office or home.

However, over the weekend, a news item appeared in several technology blogs that suggests Pandora’s days are numbered. Michael Arrington noted in “Perhaps Pandora Must Be Our Sacrificial Lamb“:

“Pandora made a bold political statement today, saying they’d likely shut down rather than continue to pay exorbitant fees to play music to listeners of its massively popular service…Radio stations pay different rates depending on how they broadcast music. Terrestrial stations (normal FM/AM stations) pay nothing…Satellite stations pay approximately 1.6 cents per hour per listener. By 2010, Pandora and other Internet radio stations, which have few lobbying resources, must pay 2.91 cents…Pandora says they’re alread paying 70% of their $25 million in yearly revenues in royalty fees, and it is driving them out of business.”

I have to say that my first reaction was “Shucks (or words to that affect)…I love this site and would hate to lose it.” But my second reaction was to wonder why I assume I SHOULD have access to music at no cost? What am I losing if I have never paid for that service in the first place?

To assume that I SHOULD get my music for free, I guess that I am no different than many of my Net Gen students. Thanks to the ubiquitous and pervasive nature of Web 2.0, we have grown accustomed to having access to anything any time at any place. Chris Anderson, author of The Long Tail, had an interesting article in Wired magazine earlier this year entitled “Free: Why $0.00 Is the Future of Business.”

Anderson details how the web has changed business communications, and how “free” is becoming the expected norm.  As he noted:

Once a marketing gimmick, free has emerged as a full-fledged economy. Offering free music proved successful for Radiohead, Trent Reznor of Nine Inch Nails, and a swarm of other bands on MySpace that grasped the audience-building merits of zero. The fastest-growing parts of the gaming industry are ad-supported casual games online and free-to-try massively multiplayer online games. Virtually everything Google does is free to consumers, from Gmail to Picasa to GOOG-411.

While we may desire and expect that “everything” be available to us at no charge, the Pandora situation illustrates that “free” is a relative term.  Someone must be paying for the servers and bandwidth providing this music.  Eventually, some monetary reward must make its way back to the artists providing the music.  Yet, as Anderson and Arrington point out, these economic streams are not simplistic…and artists are making money NOW giving their songs away.

This open source environment is beginning to also drive some educational decisions.  I am currently developing the curriculum in my online class for the 5th and 6th week, where we examine educational technology planning and funding.  Obviously, what is becoming important is an underlying infrastructure that allows access to the high-bandwidth applications available on the web.  What is less certain is the degree to which institutions need to now pay for applications versus assuming that those applications will be available (and reliably available) for free?  If GMail is free, why buy a proprietary solution?  If Google Docs provides word processing, spreadsheets and presentations (and also allows for open collaboration), why purchase Microsoft Office Suite?  If institutions can develop rich content and communication features using open-source products, why purchase a Learning Management System?

It is still a bit of the Wild West out there, and some of what schools and universities are buying is someone else to manage the problem.  But this issue of “free” is not going away and will impact institutional decisions for quite some time.

Anderson ends his article by stating that “Free Changes Everything.”  What is your take on it?  What are the key questions one should be asking “these days” regarding technology planning and funding?  I would be interested in your thoughts (and guidance).

{Photo Credit: PsychoRatDog}

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