WordPress Winning By Being Free as in…

In the future of blogging, “the winner will be WordPress.” That’s the way it seems to Philip Leigh, writing at MediaPost (via WordPress Publisher Blog). Philip goes on to imply that blogging will be an important factor in the future of media.

He identifies two reasons for the success of WordPress: it’s free, and it’s free. He uses open source rather than free, or free as in speech, or GPL’d, to describe the second cause of success. The first cause is free as in beer, gratis, cost of zero, etc.

I refer to the MediaPost article, not just to quote it – it’s been fairly widely quoted already – but to remark on some of the questions it implicitly raises. In particular, consider the following.

WordPress is not merely a blogging tool. It’s a platform that can lead to an explosion of new media properties capable of text, video, audio, music, animation, interactivity, online merchandising, podcasting, and even social networking.

WordPress isn’t the only such platform. It isn’t the only such platform that’s both free and free. Drupal and Joomla spring to mind. So what is it about WordPress that will make it the winner? Is it the trajectory from simple blogging tool to rich publishing platform?

No Such Thing as a Free Sprout

About a year ago, I tried Sprout Builder. A sprout, in this context, is a Flash widget. SB cost nothing to try, and there was quite the buzz about it at the time. Two days ago, those of us with Sprout accounts got an email from Carnet Williams, the CEO.

Like many technology companies, we offered our service for free while we worked on our products, spoke with customers and developed our go-to-market strategy. Now that we have developed a solution worthy of creative professionals at the best agencies in the world, it is time for us to monetize. Starting in early February, we will begin charging for our service.

My reaction was one of surprise and interest, given the widespread use of the freemium model. I would have expected a very limited free version, with steps up from there in terms of price and service. Instead, as ReadWrite Marshall puts it: “Users will need to pay a minimum of $140 for a year of uptime for three widget projects.” He considers the lack of a free version a bad and sad thing, as do most of those who commented on his post.

Mashable Adam takes a more neutral tone. He quotes the SproutMail in full, and, based on a conversation with Carnet, “notes that the company will continue to offer free accounts to non-profits and academic institutions.” Again, comments on the post are mainly negative, with some feeling that they have been taken in by a bait and switch, with the year of free beta sprouts as the bait, and the recent email as the switch.

“The Case of the Charging Sprout” raises several questions, such as:

  • What is the deal for edu/nonprofit customers of SB? One of the quotes earlier in this post indicates that SB will be free for such customers, while the pricing FAQ states that “educators, design students and non-profits can use Sprout Builder at a discounted rate.”
  • Did SB give sufficient warning that the free sprout honeymoon would end?
  • WW37SD? What would 37signals do? 37s has done an impressive job with the freemium model, making the free version interesting enough and the $ versions premium enough. It’s interesting to compare the Basecamp pricing chart with the Sprout Builder chart. The former shows that there is a free version, the latter that there isn’t. Now, project management is certainly different from widget building, but I think that similar pricing considerations might apply.
  • How will SB’s decision work out? I don’t think that it will work well. A free version, however limited, encourages people to get started. While SB offers a 30-day free trial, that’s not the same thing as being able to maintain a sandbox over a period of time, so that one can, as time allows, keep going back to SB, assessing its fit for different projects that come up, and comparing it with competitors.

I’ll send a couple of emails soliciting answers to the first and third of these questions. But I hereby solicit your take on them, and comments are open…