Research ∕ Learning

Free and not free

Lorcan 2 min read

Chris Anderson introduces the themes of his new book, Free, in the current issue of Wired.

You know this freaky land of free as the Web. A decade and a half into the great online experiment, the last debates over free versus pay online are ending. In 2007 The New York Times went free; this year, so will much of The Wall Street Journal. (The remaining fee-based parts, new owner Rupert Murdoch announced, will be “really special … and, sorry to tell you, probably more expensive.” This calls to mind one version of Stewart Brand’s original aphorism from 1984: “Information wants to be free. Information also wants to be expensive … That tension will not go away.”) [Free! Why $0.00 Is the Future of Business]

He refers to the ‘concentrating‘ aspects of the web …

The Web is all about scale, finding ways to attract the most users for centralized resources, spreading those costs over larger and larger audiences as the technology gets more and more capable. It’s not about the cost of the equipment in the racks at the data center; it’s about what that equipment can do. And every year, like some sort of magic clockwork, it does more and more for less and less, bringing the marginal costs of technology in the units that we individuals consume closer to zero. [Free! Why $0.00 Is the Future of Business]

His book will be a discussion of this drive to free on the web.
Coincidentally, I was involved in a discussion around Steward Brand’s quote at work a week or so ago. You usually only hear the first part, “information wants to be free”, and not the second, “information also wants to be expensive”.
I was thinking of the Stewart Brand note when looking at Elsevier’s recent announcements. One announcing the acquisition of ChoicePoint; the other announcing the sale of its Business Information Division.

ChoicePoint has a leading position in providing unique data and analytics to the attractive insurance sector (over 50% of Choicepoint’s $982 million revenue and 80% of its business operating income from continuing operations in 2007) and highly complementary products and new capabilities in the screening, authentication and public records areas. [Reed Elsevier – Reed Elsevier to acquire ChoicePoint, Inc]

Reed Business Information to be divested, reducing exposure to advertising markets and cyclicality [Reed Elsevier – Reed Elsevier 2007 Preliminary Results]

What we see here is a reallocation from the ‘information wants to be free’ arena, where business magazines (including Library Journal, part of the group being divested) are increasingly supported by advertising revenue and are in competition with a network environment rich in alternative sources, to the ‘information wants to be expensive’ arena where the value resides in providing business-critical information tightly integrated into workflow solutions.
In fact, in looking through the press releases about recent Elsevier acquisitions it is interesting to note how often ‘workflow’ is mentioned. Simply being available is no longer enough.
Note: see Michael Cairns on the Reed Business Information sale.

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