In recent years the ‘freemium’ business model has gained much traction in many areas from gaming to software services. But while the portmanteau describing the phenomenon is a relatively new addition to our language, the idea behind the business model is not.
In the 1980s, those with access to Bulletin Board Systems would download programs and share them with their friends, all with the full encouragement of the software’s creators. Shareware, as it was known, often encouraged users to send off a snail-mailed registration fee in return for a code to unlock premium features. Although basic, freemium had been born.
Today the concept has gone way beyond those humble roots. The App Store and Google Play are awash with free-to-play games with premium addons, and services such as Spotify and Dropbox offer decent free levels of service to get users onboard and primed to start parting with real cash.
If Joe Public was pressed into a snap judgment, Microsoft would probably be more associated with premium than free, with the company historically charging sizable amounts for its Windows and Office products, for example. However, speaking with CNBC, Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella says that the company has always had an eye on the freemium experience.
The idea, the CEO notes, is to get people on board with a product they find useful. Then, when it becomes clear how users are utilizing the service, options to monetize become available alongside their demands for improved service. He uses the company’s cloud-storage service as an example.
“We want everybody to use OneDrive. And then when you are starting to use it for business, that’s when we want to monetize. So we do not want to have you only start using us when you have a business license or subscription. We want to have you use us when you just want to save any file or any document, any artifact of yours. And then have a natural way for us to monetize as you use more of it in the commercial context,” Nadella explains.
By now millions of people online are familiar with ‘freemium’ in one shape or another but comments from Nadella suggest that while this business model has been leveraged by Microsoft for quite some time, the company had it forced upon them.
“Well, we’ve always had freemium. Sometimes our freemium was called piracy,” Nadella reveals.
“[The] thing that I don’t want us as a company to shy away from is usage first. Because I think if anything, the new competition has taught is that, you know, what matters is do not try to equate revenue and usage day one.”
The ‘piracy is promotion’ angle is something rarely spoken about by company execs, probably in fear of endorsing an illegal activity and validating it in the eyes of piracy proponents. However, by speaking of it alongside ‘freemium’, Microsoft’s CEO appears to have confirmed what many have been saying all along, that getting people on board for free – via piracy if necessary – is one the first steps on the monetization trail.
Indeed, this belief his held so strongly in some quarters that there are some who insist that it’s preferable for people to pirate the software of company ‘A’ than switch to the opposition, whether paid or not.
That said, what Microsoft does not want is people selling pirated copies of its premium products – that kind of ‘promotion’ is never welcome. If people use a free sample of Microsoft products at home, the company isn’t likely to kick down the door. Do the same in a business environment, however, and things aren’t anywhere near as open-minded.
There are no signs that Microsoft is going soft on piracy but as business models change, as they have with Adobe’s Creative Cloud, free tiers attractive to would-be pirates will become more commonplace. And that can only mean one thing for piracy rates.