The Price of Free

When looking at which tech toys to use it’s easy to differentiate by the upfront cost. An iPad, for example, can be twice the price of some of its competitors. This can certainly be prohibitive, no matter the quality of the device. I very much enjoy my Macbook Pro, but I would not be using one if work had not provided it for me. For many people it’s just not feasible to pay such a large cash amount upfront, and understandably so.

But is the monetary cost of the device itself the only consideration? Maybe we should be asking how or why other companies offer theirs for less. For the purpose of this article I’m going to pick on Google simply because they are the largest company utilizing a competing model. They are certainly not the only ones but have arguably been the most successful at it. The model I’m speaking of is that of advertising. Every time you go to their website Google displays tiny advertisements that other companies have paid large amounts of money to have placed there. But we all know that the most effective advertising is targeted advertising, getting exactly the right ad to exactly the right person. This is where the rest of Google’s services come in. By providing a litany of well-built, completely free services Google invites thousands of users to connect to their systems. While doing this, they gain mountains of data about you, your interests, your social circle, and their interests. This allows them to create increasingly personalized advertisements for you and cash in with companies who want you to see those advertisements.

Bringing it back to the devices, when you purchase an Android tablet or phone the cash price is usually going to be lower up front. However, it is geared toward Google services (rightly so). Most people will use the built-in apps provided by Google and, in doing so, send large amounts of data about themselves to Google over time. This can be in the form of email (Gmail), IM’s (Hangouts), Movies/Music/TV (Play Store), location data (Google Maps), etc. It’s likely few if any of us realize the extent of the data that we send them. It’s all built on the foundation of advertising so it all works toward fueling that end. On the flip side, companies like Apple have a more traditional business model. You pay a price for a product. Yes the monetary cost is higher, but it’s the entire cost up front. They do utilize cloud services and have you input your data to use various features. But the data is collected in order to allow you to use those services, not to assist advertisers.

Don’t get me wrong, it isn’t like Google is hiding anything. They offer a free service or low-cost device and in return they get to use your data to target ads towards you. It’s all laid out from the start in their user agreements. The problem is that none of us really read those things. We just click through the agreement in a rush to see what cool features are in store for us. So, the takeaway here is just to be mindful. Nothing in this world is free, especially when it is made by a for-profit company. If you have privacy concerns then take a step back and evaluate what information you’re giving over for the services you use. If you’re happy with the return you get from those services and the more relevant advertisements that result from your data being used, then please continue to happily use their services and products. Just never assume that the only cost of your device was the cash value.

Disclaimer: This post was written using Google Chrome on an Apple Macbook Pro.

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