If you aren’t paying then you aren’t the customer, you are the product.
A customer emailed me last evening and asked me to justify the price of powerOne for iPhone, iPod touch and iPad. At first, I have to admit, I was a little insulted but as I thought about it more I decided it was a legitimate question. In this day and age where every software product seems to be free, why should he pay?
And my answer was pretty straight forward: if you aren’t paying then you aren’t the customer, you are the product.
The Wall Street Journal recently studied 101 iPhone and Android apps and found these apps were commonly relaying personal data about the user, in some cases current location and in others age, gender, even a user’s contact list, to third parties. In almost all of these cases the WSJ was looking at free apps.
Am I surprised? Of course not. Because if you didn’t pay then someone else did, and that someone else wants as much information as possible. My role as a developer is to satisfy my customer to get more of them to pay me money. If you aren’t my customer then someone else is, and then my job is to satisfy them. And that means providing them with what they need to make decisions, even if it isn’t in your, the users, best interest.
Google, I think, thrives beautifully in this system. You get free stuff (hurray!) and they get money from advertisers. Google is in the business of collecting every scrap of information they can about you so they can do a better job of selling to advertisers.
There is another benefit to Google: since you aren’t paying for the software then Google doesn’t need to support you. Since you aren’t paying for the software than Google can cancel products at any time without worrying about what you think. After all their customers — advertisers — just shift their dollars to a different Google product.
But wait, you say! If I don’t use these free products than they don’t have the customer base to sell to advertisers. I’m their customer, too.
Sure, you are. Kind of. But in reality you aren’t. It is in Facebook’s best interest, for example, to keep you engaged but they will only do this to the extent you leave their free service. This means that they will push the boundary of what they can get away with. It means they will, as the saying goes, implement today and ask for forgiveness later.
There are lots of reasons to pay for software. You want to get support, you want to reward the developer, you want to make sure that the app keeps improving. But the most important one is that you want me, the developer, beholden to you and not to some third-party that doesn’t have your interests in mind.
Always remember: If you aren’t the customer, you are the product. And the customer is the one who pays for it.