Free on-line services, or do you roll your own?

The first time I was hit by a ‘free’ service being withdrawn was probably the worst time. It was back in the late 90’s when I used a ‘free’ on-line chat forum service as an adjunct to a website I created for my old school’s reunion website. This service was withdrawn with 3 days notice and the site’s popularity never really recovered from the blow.

For the most part these ‘free’ services are monetised through the users identity being sold as a merchandising opportunity. Sometimes these services are used as a taster or sales lead for a paid service with higher functionality, quality or quantity of the service. Some  ‘free’ services are closer to being genuinely free, such those offered by open source projects in support of their activities, although increasingly the commercial realities of running these services lead to advertising support of some kind.

Given my early experience with the chat-room, I’ve always used these services with my eyes half-open knowing that I’m not getting something for nothing, making a calculated decision about the compromise being made and the relative security of the content invested in the service. Over the years I’ve been caught out a number of times with ‘free’ services being withdrawn. More recently it has been Google services being withdrawn, admittedly with adequate notice, but all the same, with some inconvenience.

This year I’ve started to run or manage for myself some of the on-line services I use. The first was this blog. Previously I used Posterous and Google’s Blogger; The Posterous service was withdrawn and after the withdrawal of Google Reader, I’m not convinced that Blogger will be around for the long term.

There’s a cost to running your own services, either paying for a hosting service or running your own machine from home. Although it might seem like a cost free option to run your services from a home PC, in reality the cost of the electricity to leave it running 24/7 (approx. £1 per watt per year) may outstrip the cost of a low cost shared hosting service, which will also usually provide some form of additional backup and resilience. If you can squeeze you requirements into an ARM based machine like a Raspberry Pie or a low powered Atom based machine it might be worth running your own. So unles you have some very particular requirements its worth considering a hosted solution.

When I started out I just wanted to run this Blog and I managed to buy a year’s hosting from Tsohost for £12.99, although it would be £14.99 without the discount code I used. So far the service has been good.

The other services I’ve started to run for myself are a Google Reader replacement and a Paste Bin, but there’s a long list left where I need to decide on whether to continue to accept the compromise.



1 thought on “Free on-line services, or do you roll your own?

  1. The other alternative – and one that I would like to see gaining more widespread adoption – is paid services.

    The problem with free-to-use online services is that the user of the service is not the customer. As such, you either have to accept the compromises you detailed in your post, or be aware that all or part of the functionality can be withdrawn randomly or at any time.

    When Google Reader was withdrawn, I did consider attempting to install Tiny Tiny RSS but, had I done so, that would have been another hosting package plus all the time to install and maintain an instance.

    Instead, I decided to spash out the princely sum of $2 a month to become a NewsBlur premium user. The cost to me is trivial, but a glance at my NewsBlur dashboard reveals that 8500 premium users visited the site today – which represents quite a reasonable turnover for the one-man business that NewsBlur is.

    Samuel Clay, the developer of the software and maintaner of the site, therefore has a steady income that doesn’t rely on the vagaries of the advertising industry nor on finding someone to buy the company and pull it apart – which seems to be the hope of far too many start-ups these days.

    Best of all, I get to support an open source project, and be lazy.

    The point of all this is that we do rely on online services, and most people do not have the time or inclination to set up and manage their own server, It is reasonable, therefore, to use online services and it is also sensible – for those services that we really value – to start paying for what we use.

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