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In Business
Thursday 8.30-9.00pm,
Sunday 9.30-10.00pm (rpt)
Programme details 
8 January 2009
Listen to this programme in full
Peter Day
Free For All

Maybe there are better ways of doing business than charging users for goods and services. But is it really profitable to give products away? Peter Day hears from two advocates of business models that turn conventional wisdom on its head.

Read more about the free business model on the BBC News website.

About this programme by Peter Day

Sometimes you don't realise the significance of what people say in interviews until quite a long time afterwards. One example that sticks in my mind is my first encounter with Kevin Kelly, in San Francisco.

It was in the offices of the magazine Wired, in the intensively creative district of San Francisco called South of Market, warehouseland.

Wired is a magazine that started in 1993 and immediately caught the vibrancy of the new computer network economy that was being created in places such as San Francisco and Silicon Valley 30 miles to the south of it, and celebrated it with sharp and enthusiastic writing and bravura artwork.

I dropped in to Wired's offices a year or so later to hear from one of the founders, Jane Metcalfe. After we'd finished one of my wide-ranging (ie rambling) interviews, she insisted we wait to see someone else..the magazine's then executive editor, Kevin Kelly. (He's still there, on the staff list as “senior maverick”.)

It was worth the wait when he finally arrived.

Kevin Kelly is an influential writer who has been riding the wave of technology intersecting with great big changes in society for a long time.

He was one of the editors of the very influential, very 1960s, Whole Earth Catalogue, founded by his friend Stuart Brand under the banner "Access to Tools" and described by Steve Jobs, co-founder of Apple, as the “conceptual forerunner of the Internet”.

Kevin Kelly talked vividly about the vast changes in life, society and high tech he was seeing in Silicon Valley, and then he uttered the striking thing that I did not really understand at the time.

Asked how we should try to navigate in this new Internet world with quite different values and business strategies from the one we'd grown up in, Kevin Kelly said, quite simply "Follow the Free".

In other words, the ones who understood the development of the wired up world were the ones who were giving away their products and services.

The web browser Mosaic (and Netscape Navigator) was one of the few examples I’d heard of. (Google was not then in existence, but it embraced exactly that potent principle when it arrived four years later.)

Follow the Free (when I finally digested it) has proved to be a wonderful way of assessing the direction and potential of Internet related ideas. It worked as a guidepost even during the chaos of the dot com bubble bursting in 2000.

So this summer it was nice to be back in the Wired Offices 15 years later to hear from the current editor Chris Anderson. British-born, he's already well-known for his last book The Long Tail, about the way internet businesses such as the retailers can cater for huge individual choices (a long tail of specific choices) in a way that the old mass production suppliers could not.

Chris Anderson has a new book coming out this summer, and that's what we talked about, as he barely paused for breath in an hour of interview.

The new book is also about Free, and how to make money out of giving things away.

With admirable consistency, the Wired war cry is still "Follow the Free" and it's still an illuminating way of getting a fix on the business future.

Except that Kevin Kelly has moved on and disagrees. In a book he's working on called Better than Free, he argues that since the Internet is really a giant copying machine, it’s the things in the world that cannot be copied that have real value, not the mass reproduceable ones. I hope to hear more about that from him some time soon.

Meanwhile this week's programme hears about Free from Chris Anderson..and the new disputed freedoms of the Creative Commons copyright system from Professor James Boyle of Duke University, another eminent Brit in the USA. Compelling stuff, I hope.

Chris Anderson
Editor in Chief, Wired
The Long Tail, Chris Anderson's blog.

James Boyle,
William Neal Reynolds Professor of Law, Duke University Law School
Download his book, The Public Domain: Enclosing the Commons of the Mind (licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike License).
About In Business

We try to make ear-grabbing programmes about the whole world of work, public and private, from vast corporations to modest volunteers.

In Business is all about change. New ways of work and new technologies are challenging most of the assumptions by which organisations have been run for the last 100 years. We try to report on ideas coming over the horizon, just before they start being talked about. We hope it is an exhilarating ride.
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