Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Fast, cheap, good - choose six

When I first started in the software industry, back in the Late Bronze Age or thereabouts, there was a maxim that was drummed into me.

"Fast, Cheap, Good - choose two."

In other words, there's always a trade-off. You do things fast, then it'll be expensive if you want it done well. You want top quality, then expect to pay for it, or expect to wait. Do it cheap, and you'll either get something shoddy or it'll take ages. That's as true now as it was then, and it doesn't just apply to software.

Of course, the client never wants to hear that. They want all three, and the sales guy has probably promised them everything under the sun, with a cherry on top and a singing telegram on their birthday thrown in. The task of the poor bastard who has to deliver the project is to get the client to decide what compromises he's going to make. It's a total bitch of a job, but you just have to do it, or you're doomed to failure.

But in this brave new internet world, that rule has not just gone out of the window, but leapt from a twentieth floor balcony and splattered on the pavement two hundred feet below. We don't just want fast, cheap and good. We want it now, we want it bloody brilliant, and we want it free.

Actually, we demand it. It's our right as consumers, isn't it?

Every day, my inbox has several aggrieved messages wanting to know why we charge for Moviestorm content packs. Never mind that we're giving away a complete movie-making toolkit, completely free, with no restrictions as to what you can do with the movies you make. That's pretty much taken for granted. People get really upset, and often extremely angry that the add-on packs aren't free as well.

In some cases, they're just trying it on, seeing if they can get a freebie. Those people just get a polite brush-off unless they're a really deserving case. Some are just trolling. But others seem to have a genuine sense of moral outrage that we're a business and we're asking them for money. I regularly get people telling me how much better it would be if we gave everything away, as then we'd have many more users. Usually followed by the suggestion that we should offer much more as well. (And then the inevitable suggestion that we should pay users for downloading our product as this would be great advertising for us.) Then come the comparisons that usually take no account of price: your inbuilt video editor is crap, Final Cut Pro is much better - why don't you offer everything in FCP but make it free? No shit, Sherlock! That bit of our free tool isn't as good as a thousand buck specialist pro tool? Really?

Trying to be reasonable, and explaining that we're working on things as fast as we can, and that we charge because we have wages to pay, servers to run, and so on, usually falls on completely deaf ears. As often as not, it provokes a torrent of abuse and invective.

The scary thing is that we're all becoming more guilty of this attitude. I'm not really talking about Moviestorm here. That's just the example I took because I know it so well. We're so used to free services and free software that we regard it as the norm, and we expect it to work perfectly all the time. Look at the complete outrage when twitter fails, for example. Look how angry we get when an update to Firefox doesn't go as planned. When Facebook made changes, the users almost rioted. And when Google went off air for nearly an hour, it was as if the world had ended. It wasn't the advertisers who pay Google who got most upset: it was ordinary users who are just used to having Google there whenever they need it.

The reason for this is pretty damn obvious. Some time back in the dotcom boom, investors had this great idea that the "real" value in a company was in having lots of users. (Or eyeballs, as we called them back then.) When you had lots of users, you'd find a way to get money from them somehow. So don't charge, bulk your user numbers up fast, and flog the company for silly money. Of course, a ten year old can see the flaw in this. People will happily use your stuff for free, but as soon as they have to pay, they'll look for someone else who's giving things away for free. And when you have an entire economy based on this principle, then there's always plenty of free stuff around, so nobody pays for anything, and they can usually pick and choose between several competing free options.

Ten years of this, and you end up with two problems. First, a fucked up economy with a lot of bankrupt companies and burnt investors. And second, a population that is used to the idea that everything should be free, and doesn't see why they should pay for anything.

Yeah, we'd all like superb, free software. I'd also like a free Harley-Davidson, free first class flights to anywhere in the world, and free champagne, too. And a pony.

Sure, take advantage of what's on offer. But some time soon, we're all going to have to adjust to the fact that things really aren't free - or if they are, then they come at a price. (You want to watch free videos on YouTube? Then be prepared to sit through commercials.) We may - if we're lucky - actually get to a stage where we can have things that are fast, cheap, and good. There are a hell of a lot of really inexpensive, well-made little apps around. Giving them ten bucks if you find it useful seems perfectly reasonable. But don't go bitching if the free stuff ain't as good as the paid-for stuff, or if it takes time to get it right.

Remember... "Fast, Cheap, Good - choose two."


Matt Kelland said...

For the avoidance of doubt - this is a personal blog, and represents my own views, not those of my company.

Overman said...

Amen, brother. Amen.

Norrie said...

Couldn't agree with you more.
Vimeo are making a slight change for free users, they are removing the original file after a week, and some people's outrage defies belief. One guy claimed they were infringing his basic human rights!

Remember when Skype crashed for a few days? People were complaining that they couldn't talk to friends all over the world for free anymore.

And there's the rub I feel. Kids IM each other for free, watch anything on YouTube for free, D/L movies & TV shows, illegally in many cases, for free.
Some people think it's a right – they don't care who's paying, as long as it's not them.

twak said...

Oh, I know flamebate when I see it! Opensource software and creative content media are free - the cost of hosting them is balanced by the revenues from advertising.

As more and more people have more free time, they have to work less to feed and house their families. Time is becoming free. Expensive soft-content can't work because it is trying to compete with the open world. Paid for facebook or youtube == fail?

The thing that doesn't seem to be free is innovation.

Matt Kelland said...

"As more and more people have more free time, they have to work less to feed and house their families." What? The only people who have more free time are the ones who have no jobs. Everyone else, everywhere in the world, is spending more of their time working.

"The cost of hosting them is balanced by the revenues from advertising." Sometimes. Most Web sites make back a fraction of the costs from advertising.

"Opensource software and creative content media are free" - only because the creators donate their time. Sadly, donating your time doesn't pay the mortgage or feed the family.

Sure, you can have free stuff. But expect it to be things that people knock up in their spare time once they've done their day jobs.

Tari Akpodiete said...

i've been saying this for YEARS! everything can't be free all the time, and for people who keep saying it can/should/must be, i just ask them: "well, why aren't YOU working for free, then".

anthonybailey said...

Interesting to look at longer term psychology and economics of selling cutting-edge-but-productized consumer software products and services in the context of the old chestnut "any 2 of FCG", which I think is more usually applied to new software to meet relatively unique needs, often of a business. Your "any six" point is certainly well-made.

But I can't really choose "cheap and good" for an area like commercial machinima tools, can I? Even if I'm prepared to wait, no-one is working on such a proposition. The product is so young and necessarily evolves so quickly that right now everyone supplying it has to pick "fast" of one of their three.

Rev. said...

I believe in the free "trial" version. No time limit, but fewer features. If people think it's useful enough, they'll probably pay for a full version. If not, they can't complain, because they still get a free version.

Matt Kelland said...

Heh. I've just been told by a 'customer' that "by withholding Moviestorm from people who don't want to pay, you're setting yourself up as a totalitarian censor of art and gagging artists whose views you disagree with." (Just to clarify, he actually meant me personally, not the company.) He went on to say that "free software is a human right, and Moviestorm should be giving money to artists to help them create movies, not taking money from them and stifling their creativity."

Tell you what, chum, go and spray that sentiment on a wall someplace. And then complain that by making you pay for the paint, the paint company are censoring you too. Yeah, they should GIVE you the paint so you can express your views. Nah, hell, they should PAY you for using their product. Fascists!

That was rapidly followed by a message from a user asking me how to hack the DRM on Moviestorm. His view was - and I quote - "I don't pay for any other software, I just torrent it, but this doesn't work with Moviestorm, so please tell me how I can get it free. Thanks."

Yup, the mentality of "I demand everything free" really is deeply ingrained when someone seriously expects a company to help them avoid paying for their product. "I normally steal whatever I want, but you have a good security system in place. Please will you tell me how to circumvent your security systems so I can steal from you too?"