Unit 4: Free tools

The concept

Imagine you’re in the market for a new car. On Saturday morning you get up bright and early, and head down to the local car yard for a browse.
Used Car Lot
When you arrive, you are approached by a car dealer who shows you a number of different cars. You find a nice shiny red one and enquire about the price. The response from the dealer startles you.

“Free.”

“Free?”

“Yes, completely free. Give me your name, birth date and email address and you can take it right now.”

What would your reaction be? For most of us, we’d probably smell a rat, or ask what the catch was. We might be even more suspicious when we looked around and found that there were other car dealers approaching us, offering their cars for free as well, spruiking that their cars were faster, easier to use or more convenient.

Yet in the online world most people are happy to make use of free tools without batting an eyelid. We’ll sign up to storage services, or bookmarking tools, or give our details to social networks that promise to connect us with everyone we’ve ever met.

So what is it about the digital world that is so different to the physical? Perhaps it’s the intangible nature of the product. We wouldn’t accept a free car without asking questions, because we know that there’s a cost associated with making cars. But the perception of online tools can be very different. We don’t see the huge data centres that are used to store our data, or think about how long it takes to build or how many people are required to keep services running. We might never consider how a service will continue to run in the future, or the likelihood that it will close down. We don’t always question what that service does with our data. But we should.

When we make use of a service, we’re investing our time, our information, or both. That level of investment can vary, but the greater the investment, the more we should be aware of what we’re getting. If you invest $4 in a cup of coffee and it turns out to taste terrible, the loss is minimal. You’re probably not going to research a coffee place too much. But if you were investing $10,000 in a project, you’d do more investigation before handing across the money. So let’s do the same with the tools that we’re investing in. It’s even more important in an educational setting if we’re going to recommend apps and services for a number of students to use, as the investment of time or data is multiplied.

So here are some of the questions we should consider before we invest in a free service:

What are they going to do with my details?

There’s an old adage that on the internet “If you aren’t paying for the product, you are the product.” If you entrust your data to a service, then make sure you understand what they are going to do with it. You might love the convenience of Gmail, but are you happy that an algorithm is used to scan your emails and then send you targeted advertisements? If you aren’t, then make sure you read the privacy policy of a service before you sign up, or consider using an alias or limiting the amount of private data that you provide.

How do they make money?

Every service costs money to run, so explore the business model of the site so you have some idea of the chances of it lasting. Many of the big services make money through advertising (such as Google, Twitter & Facebook), others survive by offering paid accounts that have more features (Evernote is a great example), and some are funded by philanthropic organisations  If a site doesn’t make money, then it’s probably more likely to close down, usually when the talent and ideas behind the service are acquired by another company (the term is acqhiring). So, look for free services that seem sustainable. You might look at a site like How do they make money? to see how some of the top free services stay afloat.

Can I get my data out if it closes?

There has been a recent spate of service closures, including the closure of popular blogging platform Posterous. We’ve even seen it during this course with the surprising announcement that Google Reader will be shut down on July 1st. Fortunately those services have given users plenty of notice, and users can export their data. So look for services that have good export options, have been around for a while and seem to have a way of sustaining the service before you put too much time into a tool.

How do I shut down my account if I want to leave?

This is a curly one and can be difficult to research. Most services let you close down your account, but some make it a bit difficult or stop you from closing down completely (for example, Facebook doesn’t let you delete an account, but you can suspend it so it is inactive). The best way to find out these details is to look in a help forum or FAQ page on the site, or search online and see if other people are discussing how to close an account on a forum or message board.

For further reading about being an informed user of free services, here’s a Diigo list of a few useful articles and resources.

The task

While the rest of this unit is going to be great fun as you explore and assess some interesting online tools, for the moment we want you to put your serious hat on.

1. First of all, choose an online service you’re already using (it could even be one of the tools you’ve signed up for in the first three units of the course, such as Evernote, Diigo or Google services).

2. See if you can locate the Terms of Service page and the Privacy policy page for your chosen service. If you find them, read a random section of each page. Is it written in clear language, or is the language designed to confuse? Do you see anything that surprises or concerns you about the service you are using? How long are the policies – could you read the whole thing or did you get bored? Did you read it when you signed up?

3. Now explore whether your chosen service has a way to back up or export your data. (You might find these options by logging in and looking for a Settings or Account menu.) Does it seem like an easy process?

4. How easy is it to close down or delete your account? (Don’t go deleting it, just see if you can find the option or details of the account closure process.)

Okay, now you’ve explored these four questions, consider this. Putting aside the actual usefulness of the service and based purely on your findings about these four questions, do you think you’d be happy recommending that other people sign up for the service?

Include your impressions in your blog post for this Unit.

Go to next task – Ways to assess the value of a tool.

Go back to the Unit 4 overview.