Is the free lunch over on the Internet?

An obvious rule of thumb for a business is that it must eventually make a profit, or at least break even, to survive. Many free services on the Internet had investors behind them, holding them afloat until they turned a profit from their banner ads. When the profits failed to materialize, the investors pulled out and the services collapsed. Others are now subsisting by putting limitations on their free services and offering full features to paying customers only.

Some of the free services I have been using have adopted this method to continue to operate. For instance, I have been using Free Merchant (freemerchant.com) for our online bookshop. When I signed up, they offered very good templates for setting up an online storefront, along with shopping- cart software, a secure transaction connection and other impressive features. Their banner advertising was only displayed to me as a user, not on our storefront. Everything was going along fine until I received the following notification: “If you are currently using the Totally Free package, you will need to register for a new package if you would like to continue to have access to the secure shopping cart beyond Feb. 26.”

Now the “new package” referred to here is a “paid package.” I really didn't have much choice — an online store without a secure shopping cart is almost useless. People will not buy things with a credit card online unless the transaction is secure. Fortunately, Free Merchant's monthly fees were reasonable.

Here's another example. Our message boards on ezboard (ezboard.com) have been free. But the owner of the service recently warned users that unless they start patronizing his advertisers, the service could go under. Now I must admit I almost never click on a banner advertisement. But since this was a good service, I thought it worthwhile to do my part to keep it both alive and free of charges. So I visited one of the advertiser sites and began to pay a small, non-monetary price: being sent junk e-mail.

Apparently not enough other people responded to the ezboard appeal. A follow-up message said, “‘We never know the worth of water till the well is dry.’ … We have provided all this excellent customer service at absolutely no cost to you, relying on advertising to generate revenue. Times have changed, and to survive, we must change with them. … In order to continue to provide top-notch customer service, we need contributions from people like you who realize the intrinsic value of ezboard and our personalized, efficient support. Please take the time now to become a Community Supporter, and ensure the future of your ezboard communities.” This translates to $15 every six months — not a bad deal, so I don't mind paying.

Free, unlimited Internet access is also now much harder to come by than it was the last time I reported on it in the Register. NetZero (netzero.com), for instance, now restricts users to 40 hours each month. Kmart and Y a h o o ’ s BlueLight Internet access (blue-light.com) had a service announcement that went like this: “Dear Subscriber, beginning this week, you'll be enrolled in our new BlueLight Basic Free Internet Service. Now you can get online and explore the Web for 12 free hours per month. Don't worry, the change is automatic.”

It sounds like they are doing you a favor going from unlimited to limited access, doesn't it? Of course, if you want more time online, you have to sign up for “BlueLight Premium Internet Service.” This offers 100 hours for $9.95 per month.

The need to make money puts pressure on other Internet services we have come to rely on. Sometimes, they feel they need to do things we may not like. GoTo (goto.com), for example, appears on your screen like any other search engine. Yet, as reported by Danny Sullivan from The Search Engine Report : “While GoTo does have some editorial-style non-paid results which come from Inktomi, most of its top listings will be dominated by advertiser links.” Searching GoTo using the word “insurance,” one finds links ranked by how much each insurance company paid to advertise.

Now I don't know about you, but when I search for information, I want the emphasis on links that are the most relevant to my search — not on the ones that paid the most to be there.

AltaVista (altavista.com), one of the oldest search engines, has had to lay off many employees to survive. They provide space for sponsored listings at the bottom of the first page of search results. This helps them make money. Other search engines, such as Google (google.com), will put a sponsored link at the top. Lycos (lycos.com) puts what it calls “Featured Listings” at the top of their search results. Now this is fine, as it is fairly obvious that such listings are paid for. But as pressure to make money increases, thanks partly to a sluggish economy, we may find that more and more search engines are turning to paid advertising links at the top of their results pages. Not something I'm looking forward to!

So is the free lunch over? Not yet, but what you can get at no cost is clearly dwindling. If you are hooked on a free service, you may be soon paying for it if you want to continue enjoying the same features and the same level of service.

Must-See Sites

This month's picks focus on free Catholic stuff:

> “My Catholic Prayer Book and Study Guide for Windows” is a free “PrayerWare” program put together by David Sayre. If you like the program, the author only asks that you pray it for him one time, or for the intentions of the Sacred Heart, or the intentions of the Holy Father this month, or for the unborn. Go get it at http://showcase.netins.net/web/cl earlight/praybk10.html . (Note: no www after http://.)

l Faith of Our Fathers Catholic apologetics and living site offers “The Electric Holy Card Kiosk” at http://users.black-hole.com/-users/maloney/electric.htm . The Divine Word Fathers have also put together an impressive array of “Holy eCards” at www.svdca.com/design/cards.html .

l The Catholic Community Forum, put together by Liturgical Publications of St. Louis, at www.catholic-forum.com/community.html , offers not only free “Multimedia Holy Cards,” but also free Web sites. l How about virtual-rosary software for your Mac, Palm or Windows operating system? Go to http://-vrm.virtualave.net/index.htm .

Brother John Raymond is the author of Catholics on the Internet: 2000-2001 and Web master of www.monksofadoration.org.