Feedly walks fine line between free and paid RSS services

Launches paid service today for $45 annually to kick off 'freemium' business model

Feedly on Monday launched its paid RSS service, following up on a promise made three weeks ago when it announced a subscription option.

Previously, Feedly had offered $99.99 lifetime subscriptions to the first 5,000 customers who plunked down a credit card. Later that same day, the Palo Alto, Calif. company said it had sold out of the lifetime accounts within eight hours, raising nearly $500,000 from the offer.

Today, Feedly began taking orders for the Pro version of its news reader service: Customers pay $5 per month or $45 annually.

Feedly Pro includes all the features found in the free version, and adds article search, one-click integration with Evernote and Pocket -- the latter was formerly known as Read It Later -- and priority support.

An HTTPS connection option, which was originally a Pro-only feature, was added to the free version of the service after customers complained.

"New Pro features will be added regularly. The goal is to offer our most passionate users more productivity and make Feedly sustainable in the long run," said Cyril Moutran, co-founder of Feedly and its head of products and strategy, in a Monday blog.

"Sustainable" is a word that Feedly has used before to characterize its push into a paid service.

When Google announced earlier this year that it would pull the plug on its free Reader, several pundits pointed out that because free services are more easily abandoned, it made sense to trust companies with for-fee services because they were more likely to survive long-term, and more responsive to paying customers.

That hasn't necessarily struck a nerve with all Feedly customers, some of whom again today bemoaned the move to a paid service or the exclusion of features such as search from the free version.

"Disappointing to need to pay for search as that's a major feature missing from the Google Reader transition," commented someone identified only as "Seth" today. "Evernote, Pocket, and support strike me as just a minor feature bundle to help people get over the fact that they'd have to pay for searching their content. If another company does it free, I will likely switch despite the great start you've had."

"I don't understand why you would want people to pay for the article search," added one of several commenters labeled "Anonymous" today. "I really appreciate that you created Feedly but just because you can and you want some money you should not make us pay for features we had in Google Reader."

The free version of Feedly will remain in place, and new features will be added to it, the company has promised.

Like any service that offers both free and paid versions -- the so-called "freemium" business model -- Feedly must walk a fine line between satisfying the bulk of its users, who rely on the free version, and proving to its paying subscribers that their money has been well spent.

"We don't see a conflict between paid and not paid services, but perhaps a tension between the two," said Moutran in an email reply to questions, including whether there was an inherent conflict between free and paid under a freemium model.

"We'll continue to negotiate that area by listening to our users and doing our best to make the appropriate services available at the appropriate level," Moutran continued. "Maintaining a free version of Feedly is key in our model to keep marketing cost low. It also forces us to create enough value to convince users the Pro version is worth it. Free users also help us make the product better."

But the fact is, Moutran said, a paid level of service was necessary. "We have to execute on our business plan. A premium account has always been part of that plan," he asserted.

Moutran also echoed the thoughts expressed by bloggers in March after Google's decision to kill Reader. "We have also heard people express concerns about using Feedly because it was free, and therefore had no sustainable business model," Moutran said.

Gregg Keizer covers Microsoft, security issues, Apple, Web browsers and general technology breaking news for Computerworld. Follow Gregg on Twitter at @gkeizer, on Google+ or subscribe to Gregg's RSS feed. His email address is gkeizer@computerworld.com.

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