16/12/2005

THE FREE FACE OF THE WEB

Looking over my Webwalk columns for the year I noticed I devoted a lot of time to a: talking about Google, which I think is the world's most innovative internet company and b: internet services which are free to use yet incredibly useful.

My column in today's Herald outlined my favourite free services which were either launched this year or gained critical mass. I post the column here and welcome any additional links to great free web services.

Peter Griffin: Free-access sites were the big story of the year

For me, 2005 will go down as the year that the internet became really useful. The test, in my book, is whether I can use a web service without having to punch in my credit card number.

This year, "free" came into vogue. All sorts of compelling web services emerged that are free to use. Sure, the people running them will monitor our activity, try to sell us things and attempt to lure us into their "premium" sections, but they don't charge us for walking through the front door. The rise of the free-access model has changed the internet for the better.

Just look at the hive of activity in the Google camp this year. We saw the launch of Google Earth, the free satellite mapping service. Google Talk introduced free internet telephony and messaging to Google users. The controversial, but extremely useful and free Google Print got under way and we saw the debut of Google Desktop, which efficiently searches your computer and the internet for related files. It's free, too. I almost forgot about Google.com itself, which has added picture searches and a retailer search in Froogle. All free.

Amazon came up with A9.com, a free and useful search engine that returns results from the web as well as the books Amazon sells. The kingpin in the free internet calling market, Skype, was scooped up by eBay and while it offers subscriptions for making calls to regular landlines, the PC-to-PC calling service remains absolutely free. T

he past year saw the emergence of Podcasting, where recorded audio is packaged into mp3 files for downloading and playing back on your music player or computer. Much of this content is free to download, though you'll want a broadband internet connection to avoid long delays. The vast range of online radio stations remain, by and large, free to listen to. From the BBC World Service to Californian heavy metal station Knac.com, the audio feeds are free and accessible via the internet anywhere in the world.

The free almanac on everything, Wikipedia, was going gangbusters till this week, when the discovery of a major factual stuff-up in an article about former US President John F. Kennedy's assassination threw the site's credibility into doubt. Wikipedia is a fantastic resource. I've learned about topics I'd never have explored through its clever system of directing you to related topics and then on to other related topics in a neverending cycle of enlightenment. Most of the information on Wikipedia seems accurate, but its managers are going to have to monitor the service closely if it is to remain an often-consulted information source. The free section of Britannica's online encyclopaedia became a lot more useful and I've bypassed my Oxford dictionary for Dictionary.com when it comes to straightforward word checks. The service is totally free and hasn't let me down yet.

The web has done great things this year for pooling information about popular culture. At Metacritic.com, the US reviews of games, movies, books and albums are aggregated to give you an overview of what the top critics thought of the latest releases. King Kong, for instance, has so far accumulated a Metacritic rating of 83 out of 100 based on published reviews so far. That signals "universal acclaim". I spend hours scanning the reviews at Metacritic.com The hugely popular imdb.com has become the ultimate website for movie trivia, reviews and information. As a wannabe screenwriter, I subscribe to its premium section (imdbpro.com) to gain access to all the Hollywood trade statistics, but imdb's free service should be the first stop for movie buffs.

There are even free services to streamline your efforts in navigating the free services out there. I start my day at Bloglines.com, which aggregates my favourite news and weblog feeds. Through one web-browser pane, which I've customised to my own tastes, I can instantly see the updated RSS (really simple syndication) feeds of my favourite websites. It costs nothing to join and saves you jumping between websites. There's no way back from Bloglines for me. I took advantage of another planet Google service and became a blogger myself using its successful Blogger.com service. Within 10 minutes my blog was up and running. Posting messages is hassle-free and I pay no hosting charges or subscription fees. Thousands of people now have their own soapbox in cyberspace and it costs them nothing. Those who want more control of their web logs and design flexibility opted for the sophisticated and totally free blogging software Wordpress. It uses the open source (and free) MySQL database software to give huge scope in developing web logs with depth. You don't have to hand over a penny for web services that a few years ago a web developer would have charged you thousands of dollars to put together.

Other free aggregation services, such as the highbrow news and arts website Arts and Letters Daily thrived without changing the recipe much. Trade Me continued to attract much of the web traffic our small country generates with its popular online auction service, which is free to all except sellers, who pay a commission to Trade Me. Wises.co.nz does a great job of displaying free maps of the entire country, down to specific roads. I've consulted it countless times before leaving the house in a rush to get somewhere.

But it hasn't all been a free ride. Many websites I used to frequent now want me to pay a subscription fee. The biggest mover to switch to the paid model locally this year, regrettably, was the Herald Online. The Herald website now requires paid subscriptions for "premium" content, which includes this column and the work of many Herald contributors. The move ends six years of free, unlimited access to the Herald's digital vault of content and I, for one, am sad. Being totally free, the website attracted a huge international audience that filled my inbox with interesting comments. But someone living in Houston or Hong Kong isn't likely to shell out for a Herald Online subscription unless they're a Kiwi expat.

Who knows what next year will bring? Maybe all the web services we've come to rely on will go premium. But I doubt it. The online advertising model has gained enough traction to become viable. A lot of that is thanks to Google, which came up with an ingenious yet simple way of displaying adverts based on our web use. The adverts are there, they're targeting every time I use a Google service, but they're relatively subtle, unintrusive. The services mentioned above are the tip of the iceberg. I hope the trend continues in 2006 towards web services that are functional, easy to use and most of all, free.

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