No Infinite Beer

If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is -- especially if there's money involved. So it should be no surprise that last week, a 99-cent iPhone application that promised "infinite" free text messaging stopped working. It turns out that texting was infinitely free only because Google was paying the bill.

Google blocks popular iPhone SMS app

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And Google wasn't getting any money from the deal.

Not from users. Not from advertisers, who provide most of Google's revenue. Not even from sales of the app, called Infinite SMS, which was developed by two guys in the Seattle area calling themselves Inner Fence.

Here's what happened. In December, Google announced an experimental feature: the ability to send and receive SMS text messages for free through a Gmail client. Google even used standard interfaces so other software makers could create their own clients to use the service.

In February, Inner Fence launched its Infinite SMS app through the iTunes store. The idea was pretty simple: A user provides the log-in information for a Gmail account, Infinite SMS logs into Gmail and provides an interface for texting, and the user doesn't have to pay a stiff bill for sending text messages.

Infinite SMS quickly became very popular. Google noticed -- probably the first time it got an SMS bill after Infinite SMS went on sale.

On March 9 -- 25 days after Inner Fence launched its Google killer -- Google informed the company that it would be turning off the free SMS service for non-Google apps. Two days later, Infinite SMS stopped working. (The free SMS feature still works with Google Chat, though.)

It's tough to feel bad for anyone involved here. Google offered free beer as an experimental feature; it had the right to turn off the tap. Inner Fence knew its promise of infinite beer depended on someone else's largess. And the Infinite SMS users paid 99 cents for all the beer they could drink -- at least before the tap went dry.

They really should have known it would.

Here's a more important issue: You probably have some users who depend on even kludgier arrangements than Infinite SMS.

Maybe they connect to office systems from home using their neighbor's Wi-Fi (perhaps without even realizing that's what they're doing). Maybe they're routing all their e-mail Gmail, which went down again last week for some users. Maybe they lean heavily on instant messaging or Twitter or some other free service that could go away without warning.

And maybe you've encouraged them to do just that. In these days of free services and tight-as-a-drum IT budgets, it's tempting to tell users to go with freebies as an alternative to your IT shop's officially sanctioned technology.

That may even be a good thing -- if you've given the freebie a careful vetting, and if there's nothing mission-critical depending on it, and if security and confidential data aren't at risk. (Even then, Wi-Fi unintentionally provided by a neighbor is likely a bad idea.)

But even if a freebie is safe and usable, it's still worth remembering -- and reminding users -- that you're likely to get what you pay for. There's no uptime requirement for free services, no service-level agreement. They could go down without warning, whether as a result of technical issues, financial problems or some flaw in the business plan.

And it's probably worth remembering that no matter how infinite the promise of technology may be, somebody somehow has to pay the bill.

Otherwise, it is too good to be true.

Frank Hayes is Computerworld 's senior news columnist. Contact him at frank_hayes@computerworld.com.

This story, "No Infinite Beer" was originally published by Computerworld.

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