Is “Pay to Play” the Future of the Web?

More than a few feathers were ruffled by Kodak’s announcement that the multiple millions of users of the company’s Kodak Gallery online photo-storage service may have their photos subject to deletion if they don’t begin paying an annual service charge ranging from $5 to $20.

Is this the beginning of a trend? Some web observers seem to think so. David Lazarus, in his recent Los Angeles Times business column, draws a parallel to automated teller machines that were introduced by the banking industry back in the late 1970s. At first, there were no service charges assessed when using ATMs. The banks wanted their customers to start using ATMs, thus helping to reduce the demand for more labor-intensive (read: expensive) teller stations.

Then, after a number of years of free service the banks began charging ATM service fees for out-of-network transactions and even some in-network ones. The idea was now that consumers had become comfortable with the technology and the “24/7/365” convenience of the machines, they would accept the fees without resistance.

“Why should the Internet be any different,” Mr. Lazarus asks?

I think the comparason isn’t totally apt. It’s true that there is a cost for Kodak or others to maintain the infrastructure (hardware and software) to provide archiving and other web-based services. But the fact is, those costs are not nearly as high as the “brick-and-mortar” expense of building an ATM system.

What’s more, the banks were in a stronger position to move en masse toward charging fees. After all, they operate under a government-issued charters. The barriers to entry – both regulatory and financial – are far more onerous than anything in cyberspace.

Anyone ever heard of Flickr?

And that’s the real challenge today. Who is going to be the first to jump into the fee-based waters? And will anyone else follow? Put it another way: will others follow the leader … only to find themselves drowning in a sea of new, free alternatives that spring up in response?

Just ask the newspaper industry how simple it is to successfully implement fee-based services on the web. There’s your answer as to how easy “pay to play” will be to implement.

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