The implications of free

I’m in the early stages of spec’ing up a new site build. The client helpfully provided a wireframe sketch of the homepage, which included – deep breath – a news ticker. And for the first time in living memory, I haven’t recoiled in horror. In fact, I’m quite happy to give it to them.
Previously, my response would have been to open up a cost-vs-benefit discussion. In my experience, people (arguably the less web-literate?) like to see tickers, but they don’t actually ever use them. So is it worth me programming a function nobody really wants, just so you can pretend to be the BBC? Maybe, maybe not. Generally speaking, the ticker idea soon falls off the mockups.
But the new reality is that it’ll take me a matter of a few minutes to program. I’ll use WordPress to generate a normal HTML bullet-list. I’ll include a reference to the fantastic (free) JQuery javascript library – if there isn’t one already, and these days, there probably will be. Then I’ll include one of several free JQuery ‘plugins’ to do ticker functionality: probably this one. Then we’ll have a ticker. A couple of lines of CSS to pretty it up, and we’re done. Yes folks, that really is all there is to it.
Suddenly, any approach based on cost-benefit analyses goes out the window. The cost is virtually zero, so if there’s any potential benefit to be derived from doing something, the test is passed. That doesn’t mean we should throw everything at any given project; but it does mean we might as well drop it in, and see if it works.
For me, this is the challenge of the Open Source Era for big corporate clients like government. Procurement and project management processes have been built up to handle projects costing millions. We spend huge amounts of money ensuring that we don’t waste all the money. But what if the cost of the job is zero, or something close to it?
This is why I’m bit perplexed by COI’s new WordPress-based 🙂 consultation on Improving Government Websites. There’s a huge section on measuring costs: they’re suggesting you might/should report an associated cost against each of nearly 200 activities. But how can you put a cost against something like (for example) RSS feeds in a WordPress build, when they’re built-in, in numerous different ways, whether you like it or not?