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Internet Messaging: From the Desktop to the Enterprise (Prentice Hall).

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By David Strom, david@strom.com Web Informant Archives »

What is the real price of free PCs?

Web Informant #157, 1 June 1999

       Last October, I predicted that computer companies would be giving away a PC for the cost of monthly net access. Since then, there have been any number of companies who have announced this tactic, and one has actually begun shipping "free" computers to qualified folks:

  • DirectWeb.com (signup page wasn't working when I visited)
  • Enchilada.com ($20/month for PC and net access)
  • Free-PC.com (this gives you both a free PC and free net access, and is the one shipping units currently)
  • Gobi.com ($26/month plus install charges for PC and net access)
  • Hand Technologies, www.handtech.com (multi-level marketing deal)
  • InterSquid.com ($30/month for PC and net access)

      There are probably many, many more to come. This is part of a larger trend to reward people who become part of your marketing database with something of tangible value. In the UK, people are signing up with an ISP who doesn't charge anything for net access (other than the cost of the phone calls). Back in the old days pre-web, we used to pay folks a nice crisp $1 bill to answer a survey. Actually, they got the buck whether they filled out the survey or not.

      Many web sites now have pop-up surveys that if users complete will result in prizes and other things of dubious value. (Go to Yahoo and search for Rewarded Surveys, a nice way to categorize them.) And some people have developed software, in an ever-escalating technology war, to block such pop-up annoyances.

      And there are even kiosks now in various airports and turnpike rest areas that will give you free Internet access for 30 minutes, all the time showing ads around the sides of the screen. The one I tested, from get2net.com, had a keyboard that was the hands-down worst to use. Sure it was hermetically sealed and spill- and bomb-proof, but I never thought the day would come when someone would invent something worse than the IBM PCjr keyboard until I tried to pound my way around this thing.

      Anyway, I digress. I had signed up for Free-PC when I first heard about them, not because I wanted a free computer but wanted to see what was involved. And I have to tell you that when it came time to sign on the dotted web form, I chickened out.

      So what was wrong? I found out the cost of freedom after all, and for Free-PC, I wasn't willing to sacrifice my privacy and compromise my honesty to wangle a free computer.

      They give you a pretty nice PC for free: a 333 MHz Compaq Presario with 15-inch monitor (no printer though). All you have to do is agree to their terms and a computer is sent to you posthaste.

      Ah, the fine print. When you get an email from them saying you may already have won (oops, wrong deal), you are directed to their web page with a long list of items to check off. First off, you have to use it at least ten hours a month, one of which has to be online connected through their ISP via the supplied dial-up modem. Given that my home has a cable modem, dial-up access would be a bit of pain. Second, you have to agree to be the actual person who uses the computer. When I first got the email from the vendor, I thought my dad would be the best candidate for one of these. But the offer isn't transferable, and I would either have to lie or else claim that I live at my dad's place, something that hasn't been true for several decades. Your surfing habits become part and parcel to their marketing database, all in the interests of better serving you with the right kind of ads. (As if.) Finally, you have to give them a valid credit card number and agree to use the computer for 30 months -- if you want to return it before then, you have to pay $20 per unused month (sort of like a reverse lease).

      There were other restrictions as well, and the longer I scrolled through the form the more I was uncomfortable about doing the deal. I really didn't need another computer (although my daughter was already re-arranging her room in preparation). And the more I thought about all those ads flickering around the top and side edges of the screen, the more I realized that I didn't want to do this. It was tough to turn down a free offer, but by then I had already priced it out in terms of my privacy, honesty, and utility.

      Still, I am sure that many people will be very happy with their free PCs. In the meantime, if you do decide to take any of these or other vendors up on their offer, make sure you are comfortable with the fine print and all the terms and conditions. I know I wasn't.

 Copyright © 1999, 2000 media.org.

      Web Informant copyright 1999 by David Strom, Inc., reprinted by permission
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