What is the cost of free?

Benjamin Franklin wrote in 1783, “Sell not virtue to purchase wealth, nor Liberty to purchase power,” and while he was not speaking about the Internet (obviously since it was not invented until almost two-hundred years later by Al Gore?) or our give me society he was addressing a similar people.  Today, we are blasted with free applications and services but are they really free and what are they truly costing us. 

Since the beginning of time we have had scrupulous individuals with different types of scams and charades that they have tried to use to gain from unsuspecting people and in recent times this has become ever more apparent but for many unnoticed.  There has been “free” applications on the Internet for a long time and while there are many good free applications (I think everyone knows of a few) that may have additional features for a fee or they offer a non-commercial version for free but all companies need to make money and to think that they do not is just naïve. 

So let us take a look at some of these free services that we use every day and think how these companies are making their money.  What about the free anti-virus programs?  Some are free for consumers for a reason, they are bad but others are free so that the company can gain data about viruses such as their proliferation around the world and use that for their commercial products that are sold for servers.  What about the DVD ripping program?  Well that could be a virus or it could be something that is giving data about the person that is downloading it, however when it comes to single utility applications it can be difficult to determine what the true intention is for the person giving the program.

Beyond the applications how do companies make money from free services?  Some of the free services such as DropBox give you a little in hopes that you will buy more space.  Other free services are supporting their company through advertisements and this can start becoming a little bit more sinister.  Facebook for example has a new “feature” that will allow you to tag music and television programming from within the Facebook application on Android and IOS.  Who is to say whether or not Facebook will be scanning more than just during a tag and even if they do not associate it to an individual account they are using the data to send statistics back to Facebook (which can then be sold to marketing people for most tagged shows).  Facebook also uses your demographic information for advertisement targeting therefore potentially exposing your sensitive data to marketing executives.

When discussing free services online there is one very large elephant in the room and that is the all-powerful Google.  Google has access to not only your search queries (meaning that they do track what you search for if you are logged into the Google site) but they also potentially have access to much of your personal data as well, use Gmail?  What about on the corporate site?  Google may have you there too with Google Analytics.  By using Google Analytics a company can track how many hits are coming to a page but through their clever code that the company has willingly placed on their page, Google is able to gain a lot of data that can then be used for more trending analysis.  Since there are only a few lines of code you are adding to the page with Google Analytics some may not realize that Google is adding a lot more and with that you have given them control to do whatever they want.

In this world of free we don’t always know the costs or the extent of the data that is being used on us.  Just as a conclusion to this, Google Analytics has enough data on from the person that is browsing to a site with it on there to determine your location (down to the city), internet service provider, age, gender, and any search terms you used to get to the site.  Who knows what else they have but are not providing it in the report for Google Analytics.

I do not wish anyone to be scared off the grid but if you are… Google will notice

Kids with computers

There is often a debate as to what is “too young” for children to be using technology and the Internet and I am not going to make an argument either way on a correct age.  What I will say to the correct age for children to be using the Internet is something the child’s parents will need to decide. 

So after getting that out of the way, I would like to discuss what I have found to be a good method of protecting children (at least my children) from some of the dark depths of the Internet.  So with full disclosure I should state that I do like Microsoft products so there might be a slight slant toward utilizing Microsoft products in my writings. 

When Windows 8 launched Microsoft began to offer a service called Family Safety accessible at  When a user account is added to the Family Safety account, the device can be monitored and functionality can be defined on the website.  There is however one downside to using a Family Safety account for children, there is a very slight charge ($0.50) which is used to validate that an adult is the person that is creating the account.  With Family Safety there is basic web filtering, full web monitoring, curfew restrictions, and application restrictions additionally when the user account is added to a device it is added as a restricted user.  One great feature of family safety is that if you want to set a restriction on the child’s account you can set it on the website and it will be automatically pushed to all of the computers the child has access to use.  Adding a curfew to the child will disable their access when the time kicks in without the need to restart or logoff / login to the device.

Family Safety does a good job at securing the device but it does not completely filter the Internet, which is where Blue Coat K9 does a good job (available at  K9 has the ability to filter web pages by category and block / allow specific URLs and one of my favorite features is that it can filter YouTube.  With YouTube, there is often bad language and content in the comments and with K9 it will remove all of the comments and it will filter the videos (including thumbnails) based on rating.

Both of my children (under 8) have computers and I having Family Safety and K9 help protect the kids when I am not there with them on the Internet. 

The Technology Age Gap

The age gap between the pre – 2010 children and the post – 2010 children may seem like a joke but technology has jumped dramatically since 2010 and there is definitely a learning curve on each side of the gap.  To give full disclosure I am writing this from a pure observation standpoint and have done no scientific study.  The specific area that I have seen this observation is with UI design and interface design.

I have two children Waldo that was born pre 2010 and Thad that has been born post 2010 with a three-year age difference (by the way that is not my children’s names.  I mean who would name their child Waldo or Thad?).  Both children have grown up with technology with both having been given a laptop at approximately two and one-half years of age but with one large difference being that Thad has also had access to tablets and smart phones from the age of one. 

When Waldo was born, the BlackBerry was king and the iPhone was still a twinkle in the developer’s eye, so the touch devices were not available to Waldo until he had already been accustomed to using the mouse and keyboard.  Waldo’s first computer was running Windows XP and he could zip around that just after he was two and one-half.  As Waldo became older he would play with our Android phones and tablets but he seems clunky with the touchscreen but when he uses the mouse or touchpad there is no hesitation.

While Waldo is comfortable with the keyboard and mouse, the exact opposite is true for Thad.  Thad has trouble using the mouse and touchpad on his laptop but he navigates the touchscreen with expertise.  Amazingly, Thad can use multiple operating systems including Windows 8 and Android with the touchscreen both without issue.

Here is what I have found very interesting, after updating Waldo’s laptop to Windows 8.1 he seemed to be able to navigate the Windows 8.1 RT tablet with much greater ease catching up to Thad’s abilities.  I know that the gap that they are experiencing today will be overcome with a few years of using their computers but it is just something that I have found interesting as I have watched them grow through the years.

So while this is an interesting observation, does this so-called age gap really mean anything?  The short answer is yes, it should make an influence for developers when creating a new application.  When a developer is approaching a new application there can sometimes be an attraction to use the latest and greatest of technology such as making the application for touch devices but there needs to be consideration to make the application comfortable for keyboard and mouse users as well.  Beyond the age gaps for young people there is the age gap between the x and y generations who may be more accustomed to keyboard input than even using the mouse (DOS anyone?). 

So here is the challenge, make an application that works well for touch, is comfortable for keyboard and mouse, and works with just the keyboard.  Yea, we will get right on that.  In reality this will never happen but there needs to be consideration for these crossover people, just as Microsoft has done with the update from Windows 8 to Windows 8.1 Update (the desktop version update).  With Windows 8.1 Update Microsoft brought back the Right-Click to interact with the Metro-Style start menu, bridging much of the gap.

So there you have it, a small generation gap that should have an impact on development style.