New Media

No such thing as a free launch?
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BY NOW most people will have heard that AOL has "reinvented"Netscape as a free ISP, and if you haven't, then thank your luckystars you've missed the advertising.

BY NOW most people will have heard that AOL has "reinvented"Netscape as a free ISP, and if you haven't, then thank your luckystars you've missed the advertising.

I could go on about ISPadvertising all day - AOL's Connie always gets my goat, and whoeverdreamt up the strapline "I found it on Freeserve" should be hanged,drawn and quartered. But I see bigger developments in the effervescent worldof the free ISP that warrant a little more focus.

I'm going to go outon a limb here and say that, in keeping with its lightning reflexes, AOLhas reacted too late to market trends and missed the boat. With Freeserveapproaching its first birthday, which in Internet time means that it'sreally not far from those tumultuous teenage years, and with more than 200competing free ISPs in the marketplace, AOL will find it difficult to stemchurn just on the strength of the Netscape brand.

Without a doubt,Netscape Online will attract quite a few users - you only have to look at howmany people still use Netscape Navigator despite every free ISP bundlingMicrosoft Internet Explorer on to their CD-rom. Brand loyalty is now ofparamount importance in the Internet space and AOL/Netscape is wise tocapitalise on its strong brand name.

The same is true of the BBC,which last week launched via its commercial arm, BBCWorldwide. But although NOP research shows that 66 per cent of peopleinterested in the Internet are also interested in the BBC being an ISP, whatcan freebeeb offer that the other freebies can't? Exclusive content wouldbe a start, and why not look at a tie-up with BT ADSL to provide freeprogramme archive clips?

That would be innovative, and innovation seemsto be in short supply among these new ISPs. Where is the toll-free modelthe market was hoping for? For its pains, Netscape has done nothing morethan copy the raft of free ISPs that have enjoyed the bandwagon ride in the pastyear. By targeting "savvy DIY Internet users", Netscape isforgetting one key thing: savvy Internet users have on average four differentISP accounts, are fiercely cynical, and are constantly on the lookout forcompletely free access.

Toll-free is still on hold

While I'm onthe subject of free access, news has it that is threateningto sue the recently launched copycat service Greatxscape, perhaps thegreatest oxymoron the Web has ever seen. LocalTel, the telco, is demanding that Greatxscape withdraw all marketingmaterials that refer to it as "the UK's first nationally available freetime online ISP". Given the problems that have been plaguing LocalTelsince it launched, perhaps it would be better off spending its money onimproving the quality and reliability of its service and pacifying its thousandsof unhappy customers, some of whom have now started picketing itsoffices.

The great catch is that has led all of its"Screamers" to ditch their telephone service in favour of the unreliableLocalTel service. Not only has this caused frustration among customerswanting to access the Internet, but it has also meant that some customershave been unable to make basic phone calls. Those wanting to cancel theirLocalTel subscription find themselves faced with a £13 disconnection chargeand the hassle of reconnecting with the likes of BT. So what initially seemedlike a great ISP model when it launched is now widely viewed as being one of thebiggest stitch-ups in Internet history.

The market is waiting for atoll-free ISP. X-Stream could go this route and would bewell-advised to get there first before the much-talked-aboutFreedom-I hits the market. Freedom-I, which is backed by FreedomTelecom, the company that plays annoying ads during free phone calls andNTL, has the potential to shake up the overcrowded market but has yet toconfirm when it will launch. Let's hope that it's sooner rather thanlater, or else there's going to be more unhappy campers in free ISPland.

Who's the digital tsar?

Remember the Government issuing astatement in November saying it was going to appoint a digital tsar? Sincethen it has kept quiet, and has allowed the US to creep in and beat it to adecision, appointing the 39- year-old Elizabeth B Echols as itse-commerce tzar. The UK job has been offered to Alex Allan, the highcommissioner in Australia, who will not return to the UK until January.But whether Allen will have his finger on the pulse of UK new media is anothermatter. Clearly, the right thing to do would have been to offer it tosomeone from the new media industry, but of the six industry applicants of"high enough calibre", most were put off by the low pay and theprospect of becoming the scapegoat for the Government's digital faux pas.