Online freebies are net gain for consumers

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The Independent Online
HOW MUCH should you pay for something bought over the Internet? The answer may be "nothing", as the global network heralds a dramatic shift in the economics of daily life - and offers a way to defeat pirates.

From next week, publisher Dorling Kindersley will provide entire books online. This week a US software company began offering free downloads of apiece of software which in a store would cost hundreds of pounds.

That's in addition to the huge range of content - newspapers, magazines, music tracks, film trailers (or even entire films), books and auction catalogues - which can be viewed or listened to for free.

"About the only thing you can't find offered for free on the Net is food and drink," said Craig Richman, business development manager with consultancy Hyperion. "But with anything that can be duplicated, you can predict it will be available sooner or later over the Net - and its price will crash."

Why is everyone putting everything online and cutting prices? Because if they don't, someone else will. Even physical items such as computers and books are not immune. Books Online gave away books to visiting Web surfers for an hour to advertise its site. In Britain and the US several companies offer a personal computer for nothing - if you sign up to use a particular telecoms provider for a specified amount each month.

Yet none of these acts is commercial suicide. Alan Buckingham, head of Dorling Kindersley Online, said: "The customer is king - and on the Net that means providing a reliable source of information, as well as an easy way to buy books on the site itself."

Making things free also short circuits piracy. Record companies are concerned about the proliferation on the Net of "MP3" music files, as they can be copied by anyone. But musicians increasingly disagree. "I don't think pirating is a threat. I think it has actually increased my sales," Jeff Price, head of SpinART Records in New York, told a music conference.

Auctioneers and newspapers have similarly realised that getting people to look at your wares online does not necessarily mean you lose sales.

There is another significant shift. Rather than paying a lump sum for an object, online you tend to pay in small bits through the phone bill. Pounds painlessly turn into pennies.