Readers had their own favorites—and some quibbles with our list of the best things you can get gratis on the Net
There's no such thing as a free lunch, even on the Internet. That's the cynical way a large portion of BusinessWeek.com readers responded to our recent roundup of the 101 best free things on the Web. Of course there are always strings attached to free products and services—that's why we tried to shed light on the restrictions, limitations, and marketing models behind each item. But it turns out some strings are harder to see than others.
We recommended readers check out the gold mine of free software available on the Web. From complete operating systems like Linux-based Ubuntu to anti-virus software and games, nowadays you can outift a brand new PC with just about all the tools you'll need without paying a dime. Still, at least one of our readers thought this approach was haphazard:
I do not share the writer's experience. Every free program is only so for a little while, after which it will somehow stay on your PC forever even if you try to erase it. It's either that or it's the ad pop-ups.—Nick
Nick is right to err on the side of caution. If you're not careful about what you are downloading, free software is indeed the most likely way to unleash nasty viruses on your computer. But we have found that products from the open-source community—software developers who operate on tiny or nonexistent budgets, and want only to improve the usability of free software—never contain malicious viruses or adware. Take it from another reader:
For software, look for stuff that's GNU or BSD licensed—there's no catch there, and it really is free. None of that trial version stuff, this is truly where it's at.—ethana2
Many sites on our list offer free services, but only once you provide some information about yourself or allow a company to monitor some of your activities. This includes personal money managing software Mint, the WildGames Game Console, and even Baskin Robbins' free-ice-cream-on-your-birthday promotion. Several readers were quick to point out these hidden costs:
There is a lot of stuff out there that looks free, but when you boil it down you are paying for many online services with your data. Sites track your search terms, your click history and are continually asking questions to get to know you better. This data is highly valuable to them—the massive revenue streams based on advertising are based on an increasingly intimate knowledge of you the user.—Gammydodger
How much is data about your habits and preferences worth to you? This is a personal decision. For me, as long as I fully understand what company is monitoring my data, what exactly they are monitoring, and how it will be used, I am comfortable letting them track me, in exchange for a service. It's when you don't know who is collecting your data or what they are using it for that you should be more suspicious.
Finally, the single Web freebie readers were most curious about was the "free iPod" promotion run by marketer Freepay. The average BusinessWeek.com reader believes this is a scam:
I also thought that the "Free But Not Easy" offers are basically scams. Is there anyone who will come forward who has actually won a free iPod, laptop, or other? They are not going to give something of high value just for signing up five friends.—Jennifer
Maybe Jennifer didn't read the fine print: Once you and five friends have signed up, all of you have to participate in a trial membership to one of the site's sponsors (such as Blockbuster and Discover Card memberships). Has anyone succeeded in this headache-inducing quest for an iPod? At least one of our readers says they did, although it incurred them some costs:
I have done it for a free iPod, so did my ex-boyfriend and both of my little brothers and we recieved four iPods—so they are not all scams. But you don't "win" them. You do earn them and it usually costs you a few dollars (shipping for the product you try for free) or for my offer I signed up for Columbia House and bought DVDs.—Brandi
I still believe there are a few free lunches on the Internet—only if you can find them—so my favorite reader responses were the suggestions providing more great free products and services. See a slide show of the best Web freebies nominated by our readers.