Free Computers and Internet Access: But at what cost?
By Diana J. Choyce
Oct 22 - 31, 1999
The newest marketing ploy to hit the internet is the "Free PC" scheme. Lower end computers bundled with internet access are being given away in great numbers. Computer companies and internet service providers have teamed up in hopes of expanding their customer bases. But as with all things "free" there is a cost. Whether it be long term contracts or very annoying ads that won't leave your desktop, they have again buried the consumer with confusing choices. It's basically a matter of deciding how much you can put up with to get your free goodies. But if you have the patience to sort through the different offerings, and wait out the constant jostling of companies coming and going, you might find a deal worth trying.
There are over a dozen different companies trying to get you on board, but only one offers a truly free deal. However, as expected there are many strings attached to get and keep your free computer. Free-PC gives away a Compaq Presario 5301 including free shipping. To get it you must fill out a rather long application which does not guarantee you the computer. The company chooses who will get their product based on your application and demographics. If you pass the test, you'll get your computer. Free-Pc has had over a million requests so far and given away over 10,000 pc's. But if your intent is for mostly internet surfing it does the job. And you'll probably be happy with it if you can put up with the constant ads on your desktop that leave you only about ten inches of viewing area and the stipulation that you use your computer at least 10 hours a month. Information about Free-Pc can be found at www.free-pc.com.
Other offers, such as with Intersquid, are bundled with long term internet access contracts. Intersquid asks for a 30 month contract at $30.00US per month. Add to that a $60.00 shipping charge, a $40.00 application fee, and up to a $550.00US fee for quitting your contract before its time. PowerSpec is another company offering a free PC if you sign a 3 year, $19.95US per month internet contract with Microsoft Network. Their computer doesn't include a monitor. If you'd prefer a shorter contract time you can try MyFreePC. Just pay $519.00US up front for the cost of your 19 month internet service, add a $20.00US application fee, and up to $80.00US for shipping charges. The Gobi company gives you several billing options. You can pay $799.00US up front, or pay a $29.99US processing fee, add a $60.00US shipping fee, and your first months payment of $25.99US. After that they will be glad to charge your payments for 3 years,directly to your credit card. At the end of your contract you can pay them another $50.00 to keep your PC. Suddenly free isn't looking very free.
Most of these package deals entail lengthy applications, confusing contract terms, and rebate forms. Some can only be applied for via the internet which is interesting given the fact that you need a computer to get on the internet! The companies making these offers hope to profit from upgrades and add-on costs, and by selling ad space that is hardwired into their computers. Online advertisers have paid nearly $3 billion dollars this year and seem willing to pay far more in order to get consumers to click through their ads. One inventive company called Zap ME, is supplying pc's to schools in return for running rotating ads. The schools have input into the nature of the ads and are grateful for the free equipment.
There are also several free internet service companies to choose from, without the computer angle. Their deals range from keeping a running ad box across your desktop, to paying you $.50 per hour to surf the internet. Net Zero, ETours, and Alta Vista are among these new offerings. The desktop ads have to be moved around to get to your applications, and the interface plays havoc with your video card. But having a free service as a back up is not a bad idea. And unlike the computer packages these are truly free services. If you have free time on your hands you can try the "pay per surf" programs and make a little pocket money to pay for your "other" internet service! Will these companies make money in the long run? Probably not, as many have found and are already out of business. If there was a sound long term business plan involved, such packaging ideas could work. But for the moment, they seem to be all marketing tricks and dazzle.
Given that the internet was originally created to share research material among scientists and college's, things sure have changed. And the old adage "where there's a will, there's a way" will continue to drive the internet for many years. Profits are ripe for the taking to whomever can come up with the best retail idea or the cleverest marketing push. But that's the great thing about the internet. It is a truly open market for users all over the world. Just about anyone with a computer can start a business from anywhere in the world. And just about anyone in the world with a computer can buy anything too.