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The price of “free” content

The Web subscription is back in style. The price of “free” content The Web subscription is back in style.

Remember way back in 1995 when you could access many online publications only through CompuServe or America Online? (The two, of course, have long since become one.) So little was even online, let alone free. But gradually, a trickle became a deluge. Everyone had to have a Web presence, and it had to be free, because people weren’t paying for subscriptions. That model, everyone declared, was dead. Soon we found ourselves drowning in a spectacular array of free online content. Because you could go anywhere and get almost anything online for free, everyone predicted that AOL’s days were numbered. But with the ad downturn, money-losing, content-based Web sites are right back where they were in 1995–wondering how to make use of the Web.

The news is suddenly full of stories about more and more sites starting paid-subscription offshoots (Salon and The New York Times), or switching wholesale to a subscription-based format (Variety and Encyclopedia Britannica). Ironically, Inside.com, unable to reach the subscriber numbers it originally forecast, is starting up a print version to supplement its online presence.

The prospect of all this free information disappearing behind proprietary paid walls is discouraging indeed. And will that strategy even work? Most sites have already found that they get nowhere near their hoped-for subscription numbers. Maybe that’s because right now, most content is still free. But can you imagine Web surfers going to 20 or more content sites and signing up for a paid subscription to each one? No way. Will they pick your site over a competitor’s? It looks like that’s today’s gamble. What would make more sense from a subscriber’s standpoint is for similar sites to band together as portals, offering one subscription rate for all sites listed there. In other words, a model that looks more like AOL. Since that’s unlikely, what are we left with? In the immediate term, expect to see lots of experimentation, desperation, and a scaling back and even shuttering of some Web sites as the free ride sputters out.

Long-term, the economy will turn around again, ad technology will improve, and savvy sitemeisters will figure out a variety of ways to make their digital wares profitable, which will probably include some type of subscription service. Until then, it looks like AOL/Time Warner gets the last chuckle.

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