When surfing the net for some new WiFi ideas, I stumbled on FON. The idea is not brand new, but still cool: You share your broadband Internet connection through WiFi and exchange are free to use the other user’s connections.
The revenue model is that customers who don’t share a connection pay for the service.I kind of like the idea, and they seem to have incredible growth rates going up to over 30.000 users in just a few months. Of course, that may have something with the fact that they’re giving out substantially discounted routers if you sign up for their service. They’ll even throw in one for free, if you’re in a busy area.
Still, their web page smacks of what our American friends call “astroturf“. The whole presentation and wording is clearly aimed at giving the impression of a community-based project. I guess this is to capitalise on the popularity of existing community projects, like Wikipedia.
But honestly, if Google, eBay and Skype pour couple of millions into something and get celebrities on board, grassroots it ain’t.
The worst part is probably the “blog” on the site, mostly run by one “guest blogger” by the name of Steve Ross. It consists of midly interesting tech news, plugs for Fon partners (Skype) and even more shameless plugs for net neutrality (I not quite sure if the guy even grasped the implications – see this article and this one for a dissenting, but much more insightful discussion).
There is one problem that affects all of those “community” operations on the web, be it ebay, Flickr, del.icio.us or some other Web 2.0-whatever-thingy. They provide an infrastructure for services which are provided to the users by the user community. eBay is a good example: They provide a “marketplace”, but the real service – buying and selling stuff – is created by the users.
Most of these services need a virtual monopoly to be successful; their usefulness is directly related to the size of the user base. You’re not going to sell anything on a new version of eBay, because there won’t be any buyers.
The net result is that although the users do provide the services, they are completely owned by the company running the infrastructure. This company controls everything, and can make up rules without the users having any say in it.
This scheme works for now, as long as companies and users have roughly the same interest, and as long as the users buy into the “we won’t do no evil” talk.
But as soon as the intererest diverge the problem will become apparent.