Technology

World Wide Web: Land of Free Stuff


You want it? It's yours. From a college education to your favorite shampoo, it's all happening gratis on the Internet

I'll never forget the exhilaration I felt logging onto pioneering Internet service provider Prodigy nearly 15 years ago. In the Jurassic period of the World Wide Web, surfing was painstakingly slow and there was very little compelling content to be found. Still, there was an irresistible quality to everything before my eyes: Aside from phone bills and the $15 monthly connection fee, it took me to a virtual world where almost everything was exquisitely free.

The Internet has evolved beyond that prehistoric phase, and these days no longer do I think of everyday online features like e-mail, news feeds, and instant messaging, as things I am getting for free—I expect them as a condition of basic service. But I still have that wanderlust, and I continue to search for other free goodies online that would cost me cold hard cash if I walked into a store.

This year, e-commerce is projected to be a $259 billion business, up 18% from 2006, according to market researcher Forrester Research (FORR). That's a mind-numbing figure, but it doesn't mean everything online has a price tag. The list of free things you can get is as nearly extensive as the Internet itself, and includes everything from circus tickets to booze, including golf lessons, gift cards, pets, even a college education.

World At Your Fingertips

What have I found? I've collected 101 of the very best freebies—including enough free software to run your own business or become a YouTube video mogul—all without putting my hand in my pocket. Of course, I did have to give something, even if it wasn't money. In some cases, I had to click on an ad or watch a video. In others, information about me—such as how I spend my time online, or how I spend my money—was so valuable it entitled me to free products.

There are plenty of freebies to go around. I still watch TV, but I stopped paying for cable and get a lot more of my entertainment needs filled from the Internet. Radio sites like Pandora and TV sites like Joost serve more content that's customized to my tastes, with some ads on the side. If I'm feeling more adventurous I head over to WWITV, where TV channels from all over the world are streamed in real time. I don't know how much it would cost to get news broadcasts from Fiji on my home TV set, but my hunch is that it would take a very large satellite dish.

Handing out free product samples is not a novel form of advertising, but on the Web it's super easy to find companies willing to give you enough products to stock every room of your house. Finding a free sample of your favorite fragrance or shampoo is as easy as punching the name into Google (GOOG). Dig a little deeper and you can find lots of samples including coffee, hot sauce, vodka, and treats for your furry friend. And thanks to Trojan (CHD), everyone is entitled to one free condom per year. All you have to do is go to their Web site and fill out a form.

Recognizing Your Limits

Marketers aren't the only ones feeding my love of free things on the Web. A public community of like-minded Web users is the driving force behind the reference site Wikipedia, and the same principle is at work on a host of open-source software programs that are in many cases as useful as their pricey counterparts. While the basic version of Microsoft's (MSFT) popular Office suite runs as high as $400, there's no charge for Sun Microsystems' (JAVA) OpenOffice.org, a suite of office productivity software that includes word processing, a spreadsheet application, a presentation tool, and more. It's not Microsoft Office, but it's close enough for me.

Many tech companies also give out samples of their applications—or give you access with some limits on their usability. Grisoft sells one of the most popular antivirus products, AVG Anti-Virus, for $53 and up, but the free version is just as effective if you can do without firewalls, spam-blockers, and technical support. I sometimes use voice-over-Internet-protocol service Skype (EBAY) to make free long-distance calls to another Skype user, but I've never once ponied up for the for-pay extras, like calls to mobile phones and landlines.

I've also discovered if you want people to do good, make it easy—and free. Local communities that want to reduce environmental waste while finding some cool reusable items for free have started Freecycle.org, a swapping site. Just find the group closest to where you live and post things you want to get rid of or take off the hands of others. Recent items up for grabs in my area of Brooklyn, N.Y.: a typewriter, an aquarium, and a cat named Molly.

Online Learning

I'm still paying off student loans, but they might have been avoided altogether had I attended college for free, online. Since 2002, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology has offered study materials including video lectures, notes, and exams on its MIT OpenCourseWare site, a program for which sponsoring organizations kicked in $29 million to underwrite. You can't earn a degree, but you can find material for just about each one of MIT's 1,800 courses online, Similar programs have been rolled out at around 160 schools around the world.

As a taxpayer, I'm also entitled to my share of online freebies from Uncle Sam. Every year, I make a point to check my credit rating at AnnualCreditReport.com, a site and service created as a result of the Fair and Accurate Credit Transactions Act of 2003. And at the Web site of the Government Printing Office, a public agency created in 1860 to give all citizens access to government publications, I can browse Congressional bills, read every State of the Union Address since 1992, and check in on the country's budget.

What does the future hold for the free Web? I posed this question to Lawrence Lessig, author of Free Culture and founder of Creative Commons, a nonprofit organization dedicated to increasing the availability of free creative work. He believes the "loss leader" model, of marketers making one product or service free or cheap to drive sales to other offerings—such as Apple (AAPL) using its iTunes music service to move iPods—will be around for years to come. But he sees promise in online communities such as open source software developers, who are able to produce a free product that supports the community and not the profits of a corporation. "There's a very big growth in the number of people who believe things should be absolutely free [on the Web]," he says.

I sure hope so, I still have that wanderlust.

To read through a slide show of the 101 Best Free Things on the Web, click here.

Business Exchange related topics:

Internet Marketing

eCommerce

User Experience (UX)

Web 3.0


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