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Gmail - The price of free

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The debate on free versus paid products and services has been going on for years. one camp believes that free really translates to lower costs for the end users, while others point to hidden costs associated with freebies such as maintenance, litigation, and complexity of setup and operation. The dilemma is that both are right depending on the viewing angle. On this very Web site, I offer a number of free services. I take great care to make them as defect-free as I can, but they come with no guarantees or assurances. I place the risk of usage solely on the users. If the services don't perform as expected, or my site is hacked rendering them unusable, or worse, malicious, I take no responsibility. That's a risk users have to weight against their reliance on these services.

In my case, the cost of free service was driven home recently when a Gmail account I was using suddenly got suspended. You see, I had two Gmail accounts. One had a relatively straight-forward and common name that I would use for business matters. The other, with a more uncommon name, I would use for personal communications. Free email services are nothing new. They've been around for a decade or more. Thanks to fierce competition among various providers, they've improved considerably from their original formats. More features, more storage, and better interfaces have all worked to the benefit of the end users. Many have abandoned their fee-based accounts and flocked to these services to take advantage of the cost savings and the features, but at what cost?

When the Gmail account I was using for business went offline, I thought it was a temporary problem, but after a period of inaccessibility, it became evident that the account was deliberately suspended. Perhaps I had violated their Terms of Service (TOS) by having two accounts, but I had never used these accounts unconventionally, so I decided to contact Gmail to inquire about the suspension. Numerous polite requests for explanation to the company have gone unanswered, and to this date I don’t have a clear clue why the account was taken away. In the end, I have been left with a cynical hunch that someone else was awarded the account because it had a desirable name. It might have been politically or financially motivated, but whatever the case, I am no longer in control of this account.

Thankfully I hadn't used this account for too long before it was wrested away from me, so I was able to quickly recover from this blow. I also learned a valuable lesson from this incident. Free, doesn't mean free. Gmail and other free services, have every right to disable accounts when it suits their moods. It's their software, their servers, their service, and there are no contracts. Here today, gone tomorrow, with no recourse. I don't blame them, but I do blame myself for relying on their free service and believing in its permanence.

My other Gmail account still works, but I'm under no illusions that it would always be there. If you rely on free services for important matters, you'd be wise to reconsider your position. The price of free could at some point far exceed a fee-based and contracted one. Free services are like gambling, only play with what you can afford to lose.

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