Smart.fm No Longer Free

Today, Smart.fm announced that they will no longer be offering their services for free. If you don’t know what Smart.fm is, it was developed in 2007 as a language learning tool that I’ve personally been using since summer of 2009 to strengthen my Japanese language skills. While it was developed originally as a tool for English speakers to learn Japanese and Japanese speakers to learn English, it was broadened to allow users to create their own content and study at their own pace. Also originally located at iknow.co.jp, the site was moved to smart.fm, likely to broaden the appeal to American users who likely would have been taken aback by using a Japanese site.

I cannot stress enough how amazing this company and this service has been to me. I don’t mind admitting that the first two semesters of Japanese classes at my university were tough for me, and that I received mostly C grades in those classes-just barely enough to even pass them. Since I have been using Smart.fm, I have never received lower than a B grade in a Japanese course. I have almost never missed a question on those daily quizzes that professors hand out to make sure you are keeping up with the work. Granted, they are usually vocabulary and Kanji quizzes, and I do a quick 5-minute review immediately before the class as well to assure my success.

I have increased my vocabulary and my ability to read Kanji more quickly because of their program. I have given Smart.fm my highest recommendation to friends and colleagues. It literally changed my life. It changed the way I learned. I had been searching for such a long time for something to help my Japanese. This truly was exactly what I had been hoping to find. Of course, one of the best draws was it being free. There weren’t even any advertisements, except for a small banner for their Japanese language iPhone app, which wasn’t even available for English/American users (except for a brief period of time). I have always been shocked at how they could even have offered it free for so long. I have admitted that I would be willing to pay for the service-it is just that essential to me.

The day has come where I will get the chance to pay for the service. The only issue is that it’s not like many websites where the company will continue to offer a free version and a paid version. Cerego Japan, the parent company of smart.fm and the now new iknow.jp, will only allow paid users to access their services beginning in April (I assume the reasoning for picking March 31st to be the last day one can use smart.fm for free is internal, likely corresponding with the company’s fiscal year). Of course, I will dish out the money every month to pay for this. At 1,000 yen a month, it looks to be around $12 a month for US users based on the current exchange rate.

Now, I could just keep this blog post informative and leave you guys at that. But I know a little bit more about this company. There’s a reason I mentioned that some websites offer free and paid versions of their content. This is a model that many websites use. I read a book called “Free” by Chris Anderson, and if I am remembering correctly, one example they used showed how 85% of the users of a website are using the free version. 15% pay a monthly fee, or something of that sort. Basically, those 15% of users are paying for the 85% of the users who are getting the service for free. I think that was also the idea of the now defunct Yahoo! Geocities. They offered free basic websites (with a few required ads on the side) to users, and it was basically to encourage people to upgrade to the higher versions of the site with less data/bandwidth restrictions, and even their own URL. I was one of those people, and that’s actually how nreviews.com came to fruition. I may not be blogging (at least not under my own URL) if it weren’t for Yahoo! providing that free service.

Similarly, I seriously doubt that I would pay for iknow.jp if I hadn’t had these nearly two years of usage and satisfaction from the program. Although I was hooked very quickly, I doubt even a one month free trial would be enough for me, if I was a new user today. I am curious to see how Cerego will handle new users and trial periods. But there is a principle one must understand-when you make something not free, you are instantly putting a barrier there. Now users actually have to consider the investment required and decide if it’s right for them. I could be casual on Smart.fm. I think there were times where, for specific vocabulary lists, I really took several weeks off from studying, which is typically not the best way to use the service. If I pay for the service, though, of course I will want to get more value out of it. In a way, me paying $12 will probably give me a new appreciation for the service and really take more advantage of it. I am certainly okay with that because, again, I had always been willing to pay for this service.

But I come back to “Free”. The reason I do is because it is actually an employee of the company Cerego who introduced me to that book-not personally but through a Youtube video. The video gives Kirk McMurray, an employee at Cerego, just three minutes to answer a question, which he supposedly has not heard prior to the filming of the video. The question is, “What do you think about the debate triggered by the Chris Anderson book, ‘Free’?” Kirk rightly argues as Anderson does that once a company/product hits the digital form, things like free and pricing take on a whole new form. We’re not talking about atoms; we’re talking about bits. The cost of distribution is basically zero. Anderson points out how costs of data and bandwidth, for example, drop dramatically every year. In just a couple years, it will only cost YouTube half as much money to host the same amount of space as it did today.

While Kirk doesn’t directly say that Cerego believes in the concept of “Free”, he himself certainly does. One would think that Cerego would see the benefits in offering a service that is free alongside a service that is paid. That is why I am a little surprised that Cerego moved straight from their website being completely free and completely accessible to being locked and only accessible to users willing to pay $12 a month. In another video, even, Kirk mentions how theoretically people must be shocked at how they can offer it for free, and kind of alludes to the idea that being free was a key point of the company. Again, I want to reiterate how I am completely okay with paying for their services. It is invaluable to me. I just wonder what impact this move will have. Honestly, my biggest fear is if this move turns against them that the company will crash. I seriously doubt that because I believe that they have an excellent software on their hands. It will be mimicked, if it hasn’t already been.

There is a hope for those who don’t want to pay. I think if the service does expand (and probably across platforms like TV, iPhone, etc.), the price will likely drop, and maybe they will find a way to offer it for free again. We’ll see. I will certainly keep going with the service, and it seems that I haven’t really talked about the service on my blog before today. I don’t know how I went two years without recommending this service to my blog readers. There is still time to try the service out for free. For about a month, new users can sign up for the service. I have yet to make the transition, but I am excited to see what they have updated and how the service will run from today.

P.S. Tofugu is who introduced me to iKnow in the first place, so kudos to him!! Check out his blog post on the topic here.

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