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I don’t subscribe to the “everything muse be free” meme that basically ignores the intrinsic value a product or service gives you. If a product or service provides me with a real value then I am happy to pay for it – either through purchase/subscription or from being monetized via ads/usage data etc.

But I’m surprised at just how expensive some of the darlings of the Web2.0 SaaS era work out to be when used at scale.

Like a crack dealer, giving you the first hit free, most of them offer a “free” plan that is clearly designed to be severely limited the moment things begin to work out for you and your business takes off. There’s nothing new with this way of doing business, but have you seen just how much your hits costs once you get addicted?

Two examples that are particularly of mind are Freshbooks and Harvest. Both are great products; built by great people I have had the honor of meeting over the years.

Time tracking service Harvest starts out at $12/month ($144/year) for a single user but at Swordfish Corp there are now three of us, requiring the 5 user plan @ $40/month ($480/year). Not much change short of $500 seems pretty expensive for a year of time tracking.

Invoicing service Freshbooks has a free and slightly limited option for individuals but a company of three would need to use the 3-staff plan @ $39/month ($468/year) but I notice that once we take on a fourth person we would need to skip to the 10-staff plan @ a jaw-dropping $89/month ($1068/year).

When researching these plans, I’m also considering what my future business needs are. With services like these, I want to pick providers who can scale with me as my business (hopefully) grows.

I should point out that one way of getting around this is to share accounts, but for time tracking this doesn’t work and for invoicing, everyone at Swordfish does their own invoicing on their client accounts.

Now, I’m not against paying for these kinds of services in general. Between myself (personally) and Swordfish, I have paid subscriptions to NolaPro (Hosted accounts package), Shoeboxed (receipt and business card data entry) and Flickr.

And I’m not saying that it’s not worth $480 a year to the company for good time tracking. I’m just saying I’m not sure a service like Harvest is offering me $480 of value a year over and above using a simple Google Spreadsheet created in 20 minutes, for free, and shared within the company.

I’m a fan of the Freemium model, but if it’s going to work the numbers can’t exponentially increase as your usage increases – it’s not fair (a form of bait-&-switch from the free accounts) and it’s also not reflective of the true cost of SasS where the cost should exponentially flatten out at scale.

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“Wow, that’s really really slick!”

That was my reaction when Tristan first showed me a demo of Apture (which just opened for signups, if you want to add it to your blog or website).

We’d met a few times previously and he’d been teasing with hints about the product he was working on – but refused to show me anything, or even give me any detail about what he and his fellow co-founders were really up to.

All I knew was that we shared a common interest in both grassroots and mainstream media, and importance of innovation given the nature of the content often being communicated. We’d spent several meetings discussing all sorts of interest stuff – from the way the media is often the last resort to keep governments and business in check, the need for informed society, through to the power of building products with a platform-orientated architecture.

Very much a meeting of minds – and so when I finally got to experience Apture, I was delighted that it too was at the intersection of so many of my favorite topics. I’m also proud to say that I am a member of Apture’s advisory board.

Welcome to Apture

For me, Apture is about bringing light-touch context and background to topics within the page you are looking at. In essence, it provides a simple framework to attach background context and ancillary content to subjects mentioned in your page – all without interrupting the flow of your reading and crucially, without leaving the page you looking at. In fact, you have already experienced Apture! (unless you are reading this in a feed reader, in which case check out the page on my blog)

When I saw the first demo of the product, what excited me the most was the implementation – which I think is slick and impressive. The thoughtful UI makes the product simple and intuitive to use, backed up by some pretty tight code that makes the seamless experience possible.

Elegantly handling off-site links and embeddable media

From my days working at the BBC News Website, I’ve seen first hand the importance of providing background information on the subjects discussed in a news story. Not everyone follows the news agenda as deeply as others, and providing a bit of context can really make the difference and ensure the reader is able to engage with the latest developments being written about.

I’d also seen examples of how the BBC had got some of it’s interface and style guidelines wrong – like not using hyperlinks inside body content and completely missing the early emergence of embeddable media (arguably pioneered by YouTube). I have to hold my hands up to these as much as anyone else at the Beeb as I was there at the time these things took off.

On both counts Apture solves these problems in an elegant way.

The concern around marking up body content with hyperlinks is about usability. When the user clicks on them she is taken to a new destination page mid-flow of her reading. Apture solves this concern by providing the essence of the page you want to link to in an easily manipulated floating window that the user can quickly digest and either get back to the copy or potentially elect to click through to a fuller page of content. The point is that the reader makes an informed decision whether to jump to a new page or continue reading. Apture also lets the reader position the window around the content so that they can interact with it later on when they are ready.

Another key part of this is the selection of the media you use to provide that background to your post. Apture helps you there too – by recommending relevant content from across numerous repositories on the internet – including Wikipedia, Flickr and IMDB. Finally, it reformats these pages so that the pertinent information is displayed clearly inside the Apture window that is associated with your subject.

Apture also provides a unique way to embed media, and can even handle certain types of media asset just by it noticing you are linking out to a photograph or a video in your piece.

Open for business

Having been in closed beta for some months, this week Apture was released to the public. Getting Apture on your site is really simple (just a line of javascript or the installation of a WordPress Plugin) and of course it is totally free.

You can also take a tour of the product and see more demos of it in action.

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