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Which is not to say companies can't make money from nothing. Gratis can be a good business. How? Pretty simple: The minority of customers who pay subsidize the majority who do not. Sometimes that's two different sets of customers, as in the traditional media model: A few advertisers pay for content so lots of consumers can get it cheap or free. The concept isn't new, but now that same model is powering everything from photo sharing to online bingo. The last decade has seen the extension of this "two-sided market" model far beyond media, and today it is the revenue engine for all of the biggest Web companies, from Facebook and MySpace to Google itself.
In other cases, the same digital economics have spurred entirely new business models, such as "Freemium," a free version supported by a paid premium version. This model uses free as a form of marketing to put the product in the hands of the maximum number of people, converting just a small fraction to paying customers. It's an inversion of the old free sample promotion: Rather than giving away one brownie to sell 99 others, you give away 99 virtual penguins to sell one virtual igloo. (Confused? Ask a child: This is the business model for the phenomenally successful Club Penguin.)
With physical stuff, samples must be doled out sparingly -- there are real costs to be paid. With bits, the free versions are too cheap to meter and can be spread far and wide. That's why so many people businesses (expensive!) are turning into software businesses (cheap!), which is why your cranky tax accountant has morphed into free TurboTax online, your stockbroker is now a trading Web site and your travel agent is more likely a glorified search engine.
From a consumer perspective, it should only help. After all, when you have no money, $0.00 is a very good price. Expect the shift toward open source software (which is free) and Web-based productivity tools such as Google Docs (also free) to accelerate. The cheapest and coolest computers today are "netbooks," which sell for as little as $250 and either ship with free versions of Linux or super-cheap old versions of Windows. The people who buy them don't load Office and pay Microsoft hundreds of dollars for the privilege. Instead, they use online equivalents, as the netbook name implies, and those tend to be free.
These same consumers are saving their money and playing free online games, listening to free music on Pandora, canceling basic cable and watching free video on Hulu, and killing their landlines in favor of Skype. It's a consumer's paradise: The Web has become the biggest store in history and everything is 100% off.