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Prakash K. logged into his Netaddress account a few days ago, and received a small shock. Instead of the familiar interface, he found an important announcement: "In today's changing business environment, revenue sources are no longer adequate to support our Net@ddress free email service."
Another Indian email service provider, 123india.com also announced, recently, that its email service would no longer be free. Arvind Kajaria, CEO, justified this decision at the homepage: "…With almost every email service also to get charged soon, we wish to introduce to you a service which not only takes care of your email requirements but goes beyond that…"
They are just the first of many sites beginning to charge for their services in order to sustain themselves. And first to bear the brunt of these charges are content and email.
Sangeeta Goswami, a book editor based in Delhi, says: "The honeymoon period is over. Maybe email could still be free, though." Raj Verma, manager at a Mumbai-based dotcom, agrees: "It won't be inconvenient, as long as specialised services are offered too. If the paid service entitles me to an offline mail facility, provides filters, rerouting mails from other e-mail services, forwards email to my mobile and offers other value adds, I would consider paying."
But are users convinced of this logic? More importantly, are the days of a 'free' Internet over?
Pallavi B, a technical writer from Bangalore is definitely not happy. According to her, email, downloads, content and homepages should definitely be free.
The Net has been considered a source of free and unlimited information for so long, that paying to read something is, justifiably, an alien concept. Starting this trend was culture magazine Salon.com, which announced a subscription-based service for its content.
"I would be willing to pay for erotica," says Singapore based Web strategist, Albert B., "But not for listless content. I would pay for spam-free email too, but the service would have to be fast and reliable." He also lists downloads, software, games and disk space as other services he is willing to pay for.
Sangeeta concurs that, apart from email, she would be willing to pay for content and software too, but might make some changes to reduce usage, like maybe share an account with her husband. Bangalore-based designer Rakesh B. has another opinion. "While I agree that present business conditions have brought about this change, I feel that companies should be ready to share their revenue with customers. Like chequemail.com, which pays users for using its email service."
Companies converting to this 'pay-for-use' model seem to be taking a calculated risk of watching their existing users migrating to greener (and free) pastures. According to this CNET feature, the Wall Street Journal's online edition lost 90 per cent of its readers when it began charging a fee but, despite initial rumblings, has gone on to become a business success.
123india.com is trying to make its premium membership email service as attractive as possible, with customisable features, calendar services and offline goodies. Whether or not it will pay off will depend upon how many existing users decide to pay a subscription fee of Rs. 599 for six months, and how many new users agree to pay even more.
"I won't mind paying a reasonable amount per year for a service like email, but not a ridiculous $29.99," says Rakesh, in response to the Netaddress fee. People who pay are promised new management tools, no junk mail, 10MB of storage capacity, and protection from viruses.
In a recent interview with the Times of India (July 6, 2001), Sunil Lulla, CEO, Indya.com -- another Indian portal that currently offers free email -- predicted that most email services would become subscription-based within the next six months.
In the Cyberspace Independence Declaration of Feb 9, 1996, John Perry Barlow, founder of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, said this about the Net phenomenon: "We are creating a world that all may enter without privilege or prejudice accorded by race, economic power, military force, or station of birth".
Five years down the line, the equation seems to have changed. To enter this world now will cost you. And not everyone's happy about paying the price.
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