Anyone Want A Free PC? There's A Catch
By Stephen Lawton
Some said it couldnt be
done. Others said it was inevitable. Some thought it was just, plain
silly. Finally, the concept of computers becoming so inexpensive that
they become free is a reality. Theres a catch, of course, but the
hardware is nonetheless free.
The catch is eyeballs and demographics.
Bill Gross of idealab! is the mastermind of the free PC. In fact,
Free-PC Inc. (Thousand Oaks, CA) is the name of the service hes
starting. Heres the deal: If you come from a household with the
right demographics, promise to log on to the Internet at least 10 hours
a month, and agree to have part of your screen filled with Free-PC advertising
for the next three years, then you could be a candidate for a free PC.
And this is no shoddy box with 1988 parts and a nine-inch monitor
were talking about a Compaq Presario with a 15-inch monitor.
This is a 333MHz desktop multimedia system with 32MB of RAM, CD-ROM, 33.6Kbps
modem, Compaqs Internet keyboards and a 4GB hard disk. Well,
it is a 4GB disk, but the user has only 2GB available the rest
is filled with adds and related data.
Incidentally, because the ads are stored on the
hard disk and not fed from some remote server, ads will be displayed whenever
the computer is being used, not just when the person is online. Its
not enough now to hit you with lots of ads when youre checking out
your e-mail, as is the case with many of the free e-mail services; now
they get you offline too.
Of course, to make this happen, Free-PC is working
with ISPs that are willing to provide the free (theres that word
again) Internet access. While 33.6Kbps might not be blazing fast speed
compared to xDSL and cable modems, it works just fine for many of todays
major Web sites.
Does all of this make any sense? In many
ways, it does. Assuming that it costs approximately $500 for an ISP to
sign up a new customer, giving away a $500 PC to guarantee a customer
makes financial sense. At worst its break-even; at best it could
be the start of something really big.
Just think of the ramifications: Today you need
to commit to three years of ads for a free $500 PC. What if
Ford decided to give away the Taurus. Many Taurus and former
Taurus owners will agree that one of the best ads Ford could place around
the windshield are the names, addresses and phone numbers for transmission
mechanics. (Of course, you can localize it for a premium price, so you
get just Orange Country mechanics if your Zip Code is 92705, for example.)
And when you roll up the windows, you get a complete list of tire dealers.
Pop open the trunk and down falls a 3-D foldout of auto insurance companies.
And the rear-view mirror has a tiny screen running the latest infomercials
on car wax (call now operators are standing by).
This is just the beginning. Today the PC. Tomorrow
the free car. By the end of next week, youll never need to spend
your money on any infrastructure product but then, you wont
have any money left anyway because youll have spent it all on the
advertised products promoted on your computer, car, microwave oven door,
telephone, et. al.