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互联网免费大餐何去何从

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Over the past decade, we have built a country-sized economy online where the default price is zero -- nothing, nada, zip. Digital goods -- from music and video to Wikipedia -- can be produced and distributed at virtually no marginal cost, and so, by the laws of economics, price has gone the same way, to $0.00. For the Google Generation, the Internet is the land of the free.

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.

All this worked well in a rising economy, where non-monetary riches such as attention (Web traffic) and reputation (Google PageRank, which determines how high your site will appear in a search) could be turned into cash with the wave of a venture capitalist's wand or a well-timed acquisition. But this year, for the first time since 2001, the overall tide of investment and advertising won't rise. Indeed, it will almost certainly fall. Venture capital has dried up, Google is killing products rather than buying them, and Yahoo can barely support itself, much less look for others to fund. What does that do to Free as an economic model?

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.

What about those companies trying to build a business on the Web? In the old days (that would be until September of last year) the model was pretty simple. 1. Have a great idea. 2. Raise money to bring it to market, ideally free to reach the largest possible market. 3. If it proves popular, raise more money to scale it up. 4. Repeat until you're bought by a bigger company.

Now steps 2 through 4 are no longer available. So Web startups are having to do the unthinkable: come up with a business model that brings in real money while they're still young.

This is, of course, nothing new in the world of business. But it is a bit of a shock in the Web world, where 'attention' and 'reputation' are the currencies most in demand, with the expectation that a sufficient amount of either would turn into money someday, somehow.

The standard business model for Web companies that don't actually have a business model is advertising. A popular service will have lots of users, and a few ads on the side will pay the bills. Two problems have emerged with that model: the price of online ads and click-through rates. Facebook is an amazingly popular service, but it also an amazingly ineffective advertising platform. Even if you could figure out what the right ad to serve next to a high-school girl's party pictures might be, she and her friends probably won't click on it. No wonder Facebook applications get less than $1 per 1,000 views (compared to around $20 on big media Web sites).

Google has built an enviable economic engine on the back of its targeted text ads, but the sites on which they run rarely feel as flush. Running Google's Adsense ads on the side of your blog, no matter how popular it may be, will not pay you even minimum wage for the time you spend writing it. On a good month it might cover your hosting fees. I speak from experience.

What about the oldest trick in the book: actually charging people for your goods and services? This is where the real innovation will flourish in a down economy. It's now time for entrepreneurs to innovate, not just with new products, but new business models.

Take Tapulous, the creator of Tap Tap Revenge, a popular music game program for the iPhone. As in Guitar Hero or Rock Band, notes stream down the screen and you have to hit them on the beat. Millions of people have tried the free version, and a sizable fraction of them were ready and willing to pay when Tapulous offered paid versions built around specific bands, such as Weezer and Nine Inch Nails, along with add-on songs. (The Wall Street Journal is pursuing a strategy of blending free and paid content on its Web site.)

At the other end of the business spectrum there's Microsoft, which now has to compete with the free word processors and spreadsheets of online competitors such as Google. Rather than complain about the unfair competition (which would be ironic), Microsoft created Web versions of its business software and offered them free to small and young companies. If your firm is less than three years old and under $1 million in revenues, you can use Microsoft's software without charge under its BizSpark program. When those companies get bigger, Microsoft is betting that they'll keep using its software as paying customers. In the meantime, the program costs it almost nothing.

But extracting a business model from free is not always easy, especially when your users have come to expect gratis. Take Twitter, the fantastically popular (and free, of course) 140-character messaging service where people update the world on what they're doing, one haiku-like snippet at a time. After taking over the world, or at least the geeky side of it, it now finds itself having to actually make enough money to cover its bandwidth bills. Last year it hired a revenue guru to try to find a business model and has announced that it intends to reveal its strategy early this year. Speculation as to what that will be ranges from charging companies to have their 'tweets' recommended to consumers (which is a bit like 'friending' the Burger King on Facebook) to certifying identity to avoid impersonation. The revenue officer has his work cut out for him.

Mirko IlicMeanwhile YouTube is still struggling to match its popularity with revenues and Facebook is selling commodity ads for pennies after its effort to charge for intrusive advertising led to a user backlash. And news-sharing site Digg, for all its millions of users, still doesn't make a dime. A year ago, that hardly mattered: The business model was 'build to a lucrative exit, preferably in cash.' But now the exit doors are closed and cash flow is king.

Does this mean that Free will retreat in a down economy? Probably not. The psychological and economic case for it remains as good as ever -- the marginal cost of anything digital falls by 50% every year, making pricing a race to the bottom, and 'Free' has as much power over the consumer psyche as ever. But it does mean that Free is not enough. It also has to be matched with Paid. Just as King Gillette's free razors only made business sense paired with expensive blades, so will today's Web entrepreneurs have to not just invent products that people love, but also those that they will pay for. Not all of the people or even most of them -- free is still great marketing and bits are still too cheap to meter -- but enough to pay the bills. Free may be the best price, but it can't be the only one.

过去十年来,互联网经济的规模已经相当于一个国家,而互联网上的所有商品默认价格都是零--免费、无偿、白送。无论是数码音乐、网路视频,还是维琪百科 (Wikipedia),实际上都可以不费分文进行制作和发布。正因如此,按经济学的规律,这些商品的价格也呈同向变动,即趋于零。对“谷歌(Google)一代”来说,互联网就是一个免费的国度。

当然这并不是说,因为免费,企业就无法挣钱了。免费也可以是桩不错的买卖,道理很简单:少数人付费,多数人享用。有时,这两类人属于不同的消费群体,就像传统媒体的商业模式那样:少数广告主为内容付费,而大部分消费者只需以很低的价格,或是完全免费就可获取这些内容。这一理念并不新鲜,而现在相同的商业模式正在推动各种互联网业务的发展,从网上照片分享到线上博彩等。过去十年中,这种“双边市场”模式从媒体扩张到了其他领域,今天,它已成为所有最大网路公司挣钱的手段,从Facebook、MySpace到谷歌无一例外。

此外,同样的数码经济学也让一些全新的商业模式应运而生,比如“免费-收费模式”(Freemium),即付费版本支援免费版本。在这种模式中,免费版产品成为一种行销工具,使更多用户接触到这种产品。企业在产品推广过程中会试图将部分免费用户转化为付费用户,从而获取收入。这是对以前那种免费赠品推广模式的颠覆:商家不是给出一块试吃蛋糕,希望把剩下的99块卖出去;而是送出去99只虚拟企鹅,以图卖出一栋虚拟小屋。(摸不着头脑了吗?可以找个小孩子问问:企鹅俱乐部(Club Penguin)的巨大成功, 靠的就是这种商业模式。)

实物赠品的发放不能大手大脚,否则成本会很高;而对于数码产品来说,免费版的成本低得可以忽略不计,而且传播范围非常广。正因如此,很多以前由人来实施的业务(成本高)正在转变为由软体来操作(成本低)。所以,你的税务会计已经变成免费的TurboTax税务网站,你的股票经纪人现在成为一个线上交易网站,而你的旅行社更可能是一个花里胡哨的搜索引擎。

这些商业模式在经济上行时期都表现不错,因为一些非货币性财富能够在风险投资家的魔术棒或者时机恰到好处的收购兼并下转化为现金,这些非货币性财富包括关注度(网站流量)和声望(Google PageRank,一种决定网站在搜索结果中排序高低的方法)。然而,在2009年,整体投资和广告投入都不会增加,这从2001年以来尚属首次。事实上,几乎可以肯定它们都会出现负增长。风险资本已经枯竭,谷歌正在减少产品,而不是到处并购,雅虎(Yahoo)几乎无法养活自己,也就更无力兼并其他公司了。这种情况对互联网的免费经济模式有什么影响呢?

从消费者角度来说,这应该是件好事。毕竟,如果你没钱,那么0元是个很好的价格。可以预见到,公开源代码软体(免费的)和Google Docs(也是免费的)这样的互联网办公软体将大行其道。现在,最便宜和最酷的电脑是“上网本”,只卖250美元左右,作业系统要么是Linux的免费版本,要么是非常便宜的Windows老版本。买这种电脑的人不会付给微软公司好几百美元安装Office软体,而只会使用相同的线上软体,正如“上网本”这个名字所暗示的那样。而这些线上软体一般都是免费的。

同时,这些消费者也在节约开支。他们玩免费的网路游戏;从Pandora互联网电台收听免费音乐;取消基本的有线电视服务,在Hulu网站上看免费视频;掐断电话线,用上了Skype网路电话。网路是消费者的天堂:互联网已经成为有史以来最大的商店,而且每件东西都是免费的。

那些想在互联网上创业的公司怎么办?以前(也就是2008年9月前),创业模式很简单:第一,拿出优秀的创意;第二,通过融资将企业推向市场,最好是能通过免费模式占领最大的市场份额;第三,如果企业受到欢迎,那么就继续融资扩大企业规模;第四,周而复始,直至所创企业被大公司收购。

现在,第二步到第四步都已经不再可行。因此,互联网初创企业只能去做一件不可思议的事:创建一种在创业初期就能赚到大钱的商业模式。

当然,对商界而言,这种事情并不新鲜。但对互联网企业来说,这却是一个不小的冲击,因为它们最看重的是“关注度”和“声望”,并希望有朝一日这种“货币”积累到一定程度时,就能变成真正的钞票。

对那些其实没有特定商业模式的互联网企业来说,标准模式就是依靠广告收入。一个热门的服务会吸引很多用户,在页面边上放几个广告就能带来收入。但有两个问题随之出现:网路广告的价格,以及点击率。Facebook的热门程度令人吃惊,但作为广告平台的功效之低,同样也令人吃惊。即使你能想出在一个高中女孩的聚会照片旁边放上什么广告比较合适,她和她的朋友们也不一定会去点击它。难怪Facebook的广告每千次展示收入仅为1美元(大型媒体网站约为20美元)。

谷歌通过对消费者提供有的放矢的文字广告,建立起一个令人 慕的赚钱机器,但依赖谷歌运作的网站很少有这种好事出现。如果你在自己的博客上放置Google's Adsense广告,不管广告点击率有多高,你能挣到的钱,都不及你撰写博客所付出时间能获得的最低报酬。在好的月份里,收入也只够支付主机托管费。这是我的经验之谈。

那么,沿用最古老的商业模式,让消费者为你提供的商品和服务付钱如何?在经济不景气的时候,这正是真正意义上的创新将会兴起的领域。现在是企业家们创新的时候了,他们不但要推出新产品,也要创建新的商业模式。

举例而言,Tapulous公司运营着一款为iPhone开发的热门音乐游戏《Tap Tap Revenge》。在《吉他英雄》(Guitar Hero)和《摇滚乐队》(Rock Band)游戏中,音符从手机萤幕上方涌出,让你按照节奏击打它们。目前已有数百万用户使用过该游戏的免费版,其中有相当一部分人准备并且也愿意购买该游戏的付费版。付费版与免费版的主要不同在于能提供特定乐队的音乐,如Weezer乐队和Nine Inch Nails乐队等,而且还附有歌曲可供选择。(《华尔街日报》也在其网站上推行同时发布免费和收费内容的做法。)

与提供免费产品和服务商业模式背道而驰是微软公司,现在它不得不与谷歌等提供免费线上办公软体的对手竞争。微软公司没有抱怨不公平竞争(这种说法有点讽刺),而是开发了网路版商业软体,并向小型初创企业免费提供。如果你的公司成立不到三年,且营业收入低于100万美元,你就可以通过微软的BizSpark项目免费使用。微软希望这些企业成长壮大之后,能继续使用这些软体,成为付费用户。对微软来说,BizSpark这个项目的成本几乎为零。

在免费基础上建立一种商业模式并非易事,尤其是当你的用户已经吃惯了免费大餐。以Twitter为例,这个超级流行的(当然也是免费的)短资讯平台可以让用户发送不超过140个字元的短消息,告诉别人自己正在干什么事情,一条资讯说一点。在横扫全世界、至少是世界上的前卫群体后,现在公司发现自己的收入不足以支付宽频使用费。2008年,公司聘请一位财务大师,希望找到一种可行的商业模式,并表示将于2009年初公布其发展战略。人们对它可能采用的模式有种种猜测, 其中包括让做广告的企业向消费者发送“悄悄话”(有点像让Burger King速食店建立一个Facebook档案),以此向公司收费;以及给予身份认证,以防假冒。这位财务大师的任务艰巨。

与此同时,YouTube也极力想让公司收入与其受欢迎程度齐头并进,而Facebook正在以跳楼价销售广告位,之前公司曾试图向未经许可便在网站发布的广告收费,结果引起用户的强烈反对。新闻共用网站Digg有数百万用户,但却无分文收入。一年前,这种状况并无大碍:因为那时的商业模式是“努力扩大公司规模,挣到大钱后就开溜,最好是能带着现金开溜”。但现在开溜的大门已经关闭,现金流主宰一切。

这是否意味着免费服务将在经济低迷时期逐渐消亡?应该还不至于。免费服务的大众需求和商业模式并没有过时--所有数码产品的边际成本每年都以50%的速度下降,导致价格一路冲向谷底,而且“免费”依然在消费者心理上有着强大的冲击力。但这并不表示提供免费服务就足够了,免费的同时必须有收费。正如安全剃刀的发明人金•吉列(King Gillette)提供免费的剃须刀架,为的是把高价的刀片卖出去,今天的网路企业家不仅应该发明消费者喜爱的产品,还应该发明消费者愿意付钱的产品。当然,不是所有消费者甚至大部分消费者会付钱购买产品,因为免费仍是一个很好的行销工具,而且数码产品的成本依然是微不足道。但是会有一些消费者购买产品,而且从中所获收入足以支付成本。免费可能是最好的定价,但不能只是唯一的定价。
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