My Turn: The iPad, Kindle, and Free Content

By Andrew Zolli

Fifteen years and two careers ago, I, like a lot of young, aspiring digirati, migrated to New York to be part of what was to become the dotcom revolution. I worked in the new-media division of a well-regarded communications agency, designing and building Web sites for big corporate clients. Many of these sites were intended to give away huge amounts of content, and I toured the world, making countless speeches extolling the virtues of free-for-all online access. I generally got a warm reception.

In those days I frequently spouted Stewart Brand's maxim that "information wants to be free." And, like almost everyone else at the time, I was quoting only half of what he said. "On the one hand," Brand explained, "information wants to be expensive, because it's so valuable. The right information in the right place just changes your life. On the other hand, information wants to be free, because the cost of getting it out is getting lower and lower all the time. So you have these two fighting against each other." A nuanced thought like this was harder to paraphrase, and selling "free" made us seem like visionaries—radicals even. The fact that the grown-ups looked quizzically at our (largely absent) business models only confirmed how smart we thought we were.

Unfortunately, as we've seen since, for companies whose core product is content—like every newspaper and magazine you read, including this one—the idea that we Internet visionaries sold is a total load of crap. We persuaded executives to compete with themselves online by setting up Web sites that offered for free the same content their staffs labored so strenuously to produce and sell in their print publications. The theory was that companies were supposed to make back the money by, uh, "monetizing the attention economy," or some other similarly vaporous concept, that meant either charging customers later on, or selling advertisements, or both.

They bought in, and now the Internet is pulverizing them. Notice I didn't say "infotech" or "digital media" are doing the pulverizing—it's the Internet, specifically. Following our lead, companies have now trained a generation of young people to never, ever, ever expect to pay for content on a laptop or desktop. But this is not quite the apocalypse. Many new digital platforms are brewing, and early on in the development of each one there will be a battle for the business model—a fight to figure out who will pay. The advent of every new device is another chance to turn it all around.

When I buy the dead-tree version of my local newspaper, I have no expectation that it should be free. If I pick it up and walk out of the coffee shop without paying, that's stealing. But when I walk upstairs to my office and log on to the Web site for the same paper, I feel a divine right to access the entirety of that paper—and 10 years of its archives—for free. Yet when I use another little computer invented more recently (Amazon's Kindle, say) to access that very same newspaper, I do pay. And I expect to pay. When the market floods this year with the iPad and its inevitable clones, I'll expect to pay on those as well.

In the long run, the first decade of the Web could come to be seen as a momentary aberration—an echo of '60s free culture when we all took the bad, digital acid. So, media companies, on behalf of all misdirected Internet visionaries, I'm sorry. We like you—we really do—and we don't want a world without you. If you can hold on until we all have new kinds of screens, and new sets of expectations, you'll be fine. You'll be different, but fine. Just, please, don't take my word for it this time. Ask around.

Zolli is executive director of PopTech, a social-innovation incubator and thought-leadership conference.