freesignThe concept of free is so sweet you can almost taste it. Take a minute to savor each delicious letter. F. R. E. E. It would be all well and good, if it weren’t for that wicked aftertaste. Free social networks are great, until the companies that provide them cross the invisible line of user privacy and encounter the inevitable consumer – and sometimes congressional – outcry. The same is true of free-to-play games and freemium software, that are beloved until the products we rely on cease to exist because the companies that make them can’t make enough profit to keep the doors open.

The latest example of the problems with free service came at this week’s South by Southwest (SXSW) festival. Desperate to win the hearts and minds of techie conference goers, SideCar and Uber decided to offer free transportation. The results were predictably disastrous.

SideCar was the first to go free, doing so in response to a Cease and Desist order from Austin city regulators – despite having acquired local competitor HeyRide. Uber followed shortly thereafter, by making its UberX taxi service free, while still offering paid luxury rides via Rolls Royce and Porsche Panamera (minimum $75), as well as branded pedicab rides around downtown Austin. For what it’s worth, SideCar competitor Lyft chose a different path in responding to anti-ride sharing regulations. The pink mustache company decided to offer users piggy back rides – no use for my 19 mile trip to the airport, but a good PR move nonetheless.

The move to free wasn’t necessarily the issue in and of itself. The issue is that when you scream “FREEEE!!!!” from rooftops, you should probably plan for increased demand. Neither Uber or SideCar came anywhere close to providing adequate supply. As a result, they turned a potential positive indo a complete clusterfuck.

By some estimates there were 20,000 attendees at this weekend’s SXSW Interactive (up to 30,000 are expected for next weekend’s music portion of the festival). With at best several hundred drivers for each service, the numbers simply didn’t add up. You’d think this would be the biggest problem late at night, when party-goers needed ferrying to and from their various destinations. And it was. But based on my experience this afternoon, and at other times mid-day throughout the weekend, there really was no good time to get a ride

SXSW Ride alertsWhile preparing to head to the airport today, I knew that the services would likely be in high demand. So I started early. An hour early to be exact. Approximately every five minutes for a full hour I requested a ride from both SideCar and UberX. At every turn I was met with some variation of the message: “We’re sorry, all our drivers are busy at the moment.”

About halfway through the hour, I turned to the old standby of TaxiMagic, and attempted to pay for a ride to the airport. Something I would have done gladly, if I could guarantee a timely arrival. But this avenue proved no more effective. At least this time I was preempted with a message that said: “You guys know the deal. SXSW makes things a little crazy – including wait times. We’re working to get vehicles to pick you up, but expect delays.” I appreciated the honesty, but was nonetheless frustrated and slightly concerned as my airport departure drop-dead time was quickly approaching and I had no means of getting there.

Finally, I called Lone Star Cab – the same provider listed by TaxiMagic – directly to schedule a pick-up. I was told that my ride would be there in 30 minutes, which was later than I wanted to leave, but at least I had an answer.

The comical end to the story is that when I decided to walk outside of my makeshift office five minutes later it was the most rudimentary technology of all that got me a cab: the two fingered whistle. Like we’ve all seen in the movies so many times, the second I let out a that pitched alert, a passing taxi came to a screeching halt. The driver even got out to open the door for me and load my luggage into the trunk. Service, with a smile.

So much for the ultimate convenience and luxury service promised by the Silicon Valley disrupters. This time around, free was more of a hindrance than a help. I would have gladly paid a premium – where is surge pricing when you actually need it? – but by removing that option the companies actually delivered a far worse experience. I guess there really is no such thing as a free lunch. Or even if there is, by the time you get to the head of the line, the food’s often spoiled.

[Image Credit: khawkins04]