headstones for free tools

The risks of “free” tools

Why is it that we are so shocked when our free tools change? While it can be annoying, somewhat sad, or potentially expensive, why are we so surprised?

A recent mini-Twitter storm erupted when Padlet announced changes to their popular collaborative bulletin board service that would see the cost go from zero to roughly $100 per year (and that’s in American dollars – a little tougher for Canadians to swallow). Although the company continues to provide free access, they chose to limit the number of boards – which seemed like a reasonable solution but upset many teachers who had been such enthusiastic users of the serivice. Unfortunately, many school budgets don’t include money for “free” tools and teachers don’t always have the funds to pay for them out of their own pockets. Unlike other “freemium” tools that have changed over the last number of years, Padlet seems to be making every effort to explain the rationale and address concerns in a straightforward way (see recent explanations of the changes by Padlet’s Nitash Goel on Teachercast and Medium.)

A couple of months ago, Wikispaces, the popular collaborative wiki service, announced that Wikispaces would be closing in 2019. They explained in a blog post that updating their service to meet current standards and usage would be too expensive and provided help to users to export their content over the next year.  The brief cloud-flurry of posts acknowledging the value that Wikispaces had provided (e.g., Good-Bye Wikispaces) to making open collaboration ‘doable’ since the service started in 2005 seemed to support the company’s decision. Wikis (most or all – not sure) don’t work on mobile devices so that’s a big detraction when I consider using them nowadays and I’d guess many users had moved off to other options. However, Prof Mike Caulfield took the closure a little more seriously (see The Garden and the Stream.)

Google’s recent announcement that they are shutting down “goo.gl” a URL shortener and QR code generator, was more annoying. A March 30th article explains (sigh) goo.gl faced competition from other popular URL shortneners like bit.ly but the main reason seemed to be that the developers felt that it no longer represented the way that most people found things on the web.  Users of the service (like me!) are assured that their short URLs will continue to point to the same websites but that no new shortened URLs can be created.

But the demise or renovation of free apps and web services is part of the cost and risks of innovation. Providers offer “free” tools to spread the idea and test the functionality of different aspects but the underlying motivation is still to make a profit (and potentially go viral and make a fortune 😉 Some go through the spreading – testing – tweaking – retesting cycle quickly and then disappear. There’s rarely a lot of talk about those; it’s the ones that we get comfortable with because they just go on working (without costing us anything) for a long time are the ones that create consternation when they change (or die).

For many of us who use freemium tools for our work and personal lives, losing a favourite tool is more than just an annoyance. It is a bit of an emotional hit too as we invest a lot of time and get a lot of satisfaction from developing expertise in using a good tool like Padlet, Wikispaces or goo.gl. And, in many cases, we can’t find an equivalent app or web service – that makes it even sadder.

But it’s all part of the ephemerality of the networked lives we lead – change is the constant. The ability to adapt rapidly, effectively and without regrets is what older networked learners like me need to practice constantly 😉

 

 

Research notes:

Padlet

Wikispaces

goo.gl

Google Developers blog:  Transitioning Google URL Shortener to Firebase Dynamic Links  March 30, 2018

Humphries, Matthew, Google is Shutting Down Goo.gl, PC Magazine, April 2, 2018

 

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