Free phones! Free computers! (But mind the catch)

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The Independent Culture
IT'S A bloodbath on the high street, with retailers climbing over each other to offer us great deals and lots of free or "nearly free" technology products to entice us to use their wares. Mobile phones lead the way, with handset prices subsidised by the phone network.

I never realised just how expensive mobile phones were until I walked into Virgin and checked out their phones, which are not subsidised. The horror of realising that my very own Motorola is almost as expensive as a low-cost PC made me think warm thoughts about my mobile network provider.

We are the luckiest bunch of consumers the UK has ever seen. As with everything in life, there's a catch. With mobiles it is the fact that in the long term you will pay a tad more than your subsidised mobile handset cost in subscription charges, as the network has to make at least some of its money back. Many people like me don't mind paying more over a long period, as long as they are not asked for fork out pounds 350 for a handset. Phone now, pay later is my motto and whatever Richard Branson says, I am not switching.

A fresh slant on this brave new world of "free everything" is the Free PC movement, in which you get a free computer for signing up for several years of Internet services. The leading provider of free PCs in the US is Compaq. But if you try to subscribe to their offer, you are put through hoops of legalese and a credit check worthy of the KGB. I can't help but think that if you somehow manage to survive their intimate questioning and emerge as creditworthy, then you probably could afford to buy your own PC anyway.

However, at least Compaq is still in the running, while a number of other free PC players, such as Enchilada folded only days after offering a free PC to the public. Another of those "market leaders" was Microworkz, which has a cut-down set-top box running Linux. But Microworkz quickly ended up with a huge number of complaints about non-delivered PCs and has been served with a lawsuit by the state of Washington's Attorney General.

You would think that the misfortunes that have plagued free PC suppliers would put off any would-be Internet millionaire. Alas, nothing discourages some people in their quest to reach the Nasdaq Olympus. And so another "promising" start-up in States, a New York-based service called Gobi, is planning to launch in early January. Gobi plans to allow home users to access their ISP account from more than one PC at home, on the principle of "buy one PC, get one free connection". It is also talking about offering broadband connections, not just your pedestrian home modem speed. The catch is that you will have to sign a three-year contract to get your free PC and connectivity, and if you change your mind, you will be kindly asked to pay back the full costs of the hardware. The disputes on the value of said hardware at the point of the customer's "changing their mind" will become a subject of entertaining stories for years.

Now there are rumours that a couple of leading PC manufacturers are looking at launching a free PC offer in UK early in January. The typical deal is likely to be based on your signing away your Internet life with your ISP provider, and paying around pounds 25 per month to the manufacturer, which includes Internet access and basic hardware. The catch is that over three years you will spend enough money on upgrades, additional accessories like printers, e-commerce and advertising to comfortably reimburse the manufacturer.

Should you consider those deals? The answer must be yes. Even if you get annoying ad banners thrown at you and are forced to look at a promo of Sainsbury's online one time too many, it still beats the pain of spending a fortune on a PC. It is the same deal as with mobile phone handsets, and our wonderful networks deciding to subsidise them in order to get us to use Vodafone or Cellnet. I love being subsidised, and will probably set up at least one niece with the free PC deal just to see how well targeted their advertising is.

On my Compaq free PC in the US, it was obvious that despite knowing all my details down to the level of the maiden name of my grandmother, Compaq still didn't have a clue what products I might be interested in. I was shown with great frequency banner ads for jobs in banking, despite the fact that my declared profession was journalist, not an aspiring financier. That's not not to mention all the ads for Gillette razors.

Thus I really wouldn't worry about a free PC supplier finding too much about you and invading your privacy. Most of them are still pretty clueless about data mining on the Web, mainly because it is not something that is popular with technical staff here in the UK. So maybe you should resist the temptation to buy yourself a new PC for Christmas, and wait for the free PC January deals .

Long live the subsidised PC, and three cheers for the guys who figure out how to bring us free hardware while pretending that they actually have a business model. I salute them and will be first in the line to get my hands on the UK shipment.