Don't Be Surprised When You Get What You Pay For

By Trevor Gilbert , written on February 17, 2012

From The News Desk

In the past few weeks, we've seen a rash of issues rear their ugly heads in the technology industry. Google integrating Google+ into search results, and unifying its privacy policies. Path and its privacy issues. The state of low-quality link-bait blogging. Apple, Foxconn and working practices. Finally, today, the Wall Street Journal publishing a report accusing dozens of websites - including Google - of circumventing security measures for the tracking of users.

The common denominator of each of these situations isn't that the companies are evil, or that the shareholders demand too much from executives. Instead, the common denominator is that all of the above products are cheaper, better or free as a result of shortcuts. Shortcuts that were implemented because of demands from users, customers and consumers. That means that in the end, one person is at fault for these 'scandals':

You (and me).

For a bit of back story, let's look at one of the biggest providers of free software: Google. Google is successful because it organizes information, whether it is a webpage, a list of directions or an email. It sorts it, organizes it, simplifies it and then provides it for free. However, Google is still a company and needs to make money somewhere. What does Google ask for in exchange for this neatly packaged public information? Private, personal information. This is a deal every user of Google makes, whether they know it or not.

What do people choose? The vast majority choose not to pay attention to this. Instead, they make use of Google, Facebook and Twitter with the expectation that the services are free and always will remain so. They buy relatively inexpensive iPads that take advantage of loose labor laws in China, in exchange for cheaper devices that reach the market quicker. Then, when The New York Times or The Wall Street Journal publishes a report about "breaches of user trust", people blow a gasket. Do you know why these companies do these things time and time again? They need to, to remain competitive and to satisfy the customer's demands. If we were paying for Google Search, Google wouldn't be putting ads up, now would it?

Not only is this behavior par for the course on both sides of the table, but it is also damaging to the technology ecosystem in the long run. New companies are forced to create products that are free and simple, yet must do so without the backing of a major corporation like Google.

Take, for example, Path. The company relaunched its marquee application with an intuitive design and a near seamless experience. One of the important features is the "finding friends" section. To make this is painless as possible for the user - as the user demands expects - Path automated the process. This speeds up the task, makes it appear magical for the user, and simplifies the application (simple is somewhat of a buzzword in the technology community right now). Why did Path do this? So that it could make the best application it knew how to. The type of application the user expects.

That's just one application, but it extends to almost every other application. When you are developing the next big thing, you are faced with three demands. The first is that no one wants to pay even $0.99 for a useful application, so you must find another way to make money (we're not getting into the fact that the device it runs on costs hundreds of dollars). The second is that users expect everything to be free, because that is what they've been conditioned to expect from any number of large companies. The third is that it must be an amazing and revolutionary application. Seems impossible to make an amazing application for free, doesn't it? Well, it is.

Now, with companies like Apple, its products are clearly not free. However, that does not mean Apple isn't making compromises to keep customers happy. Rather, Apple maintains relations with Chinese factories because they are cheaper, but also because they are faster. This is a topic that The New York Times covered recently, and it is reinforced every time you see a factory come online in China and whip out 100,000 iPads per day. Why does Apple do this? Because the customer wants an iPad, and they want it right now.

With these demands being placed on companies, we should all remember something in the future. Google offers you free email. Facebook offers you access to your friends. Path gives you a seamless experience. Apple provides cheaper hardware with quick turnaround. They do all of these things because you, the user, the customer, the consumer, demanded it.

You did it because you are impatient - I did too! - and because you don't want to spend money. These are reasonable excuses, but we have to remember something. These are still companies, and although we don't have to pay money, we pay for it with something else.

We should remember this, because nothing is for free.

[Cartoon by HughMacLeod]