The Free PC Movement? Surely there must be acatch

Show me a viable business model and I'll be thefirst to sign up for free hardware
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IT'S A bloodbath on the highstreet, with retailers climbing over each other to offer us great deals andlots of free or "nearly free" technology products to entice us to usetheir wares. Mobile phones lead the way, with handset prices subsidisedby the phone network.

IT'S A bloodbath on the highstreet, with retailers climbing over each other to offer us great deals andlots of free or "nearly free" technology products to entice us to usetheir wares. Mobile phones lead the way, with handset prices subsidisedby the phone network.

I never realised just how expensive mobile phoneswere until I walked into Virgin and checked out their phones, which are notsubsidised. The horror of realising that my very own Motorola is almost asexpensive as a low-cost PC made me think warm thoughts about my mobilenetwork provider.

We are the luckiest bunch of consumers the UK has everseen. As with everything in life, there's a catch. With mobilesit is the fact that in the long term you will pay a tad more than your subsidisedmobile handset cost in subscription charges, as the network has to make atleast some of its money back. Many people like me don't mind paying moreover a long period, as long as they are not asked for fork out £350 for ahandset. Phone now, pay later is my motto and whatever Richard Bransonsays, 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 freecomputer for signing up for several years of Internet services. The leadingprovider of free PCs in the US is Compaq. But if you try to subscribe totheir offer, you are put through hoops of legalese and a credit check worthyof the KGB. I can't help but think that if you somehow manage to survivetheir intimate questioning and emerge as creditworthy, then you probablycould afford to buy your own PC anyway.

However, at least Compaq isstill in the running, while a number of other free PC players, such asEnchilada folded only days after offering a free PC to the public. Another ofthose "market leaders" was Microworkz, which has a cut-downset-top box running Linux. But Microworkz quickly ended up with a hugenumber of complaints about non-delivered PCs and has been served with alawsuit by the state of Washington's Attorney General.

You would thinkthat the misfortunes that have plagued free PC suppliers would put off anywould-be Internet millionaire. Alas, nothing discourages some peoplein their quest to reach the Nasdaq Olympus. And so another"promising" start-up in States, a New York-based servicecalled Gobi, is planning to launch in early January. Gobi plans to allowhome users to access their ISP account from more than one PC at home, on theprinciple of "buy one PC, get one free connection". It is alsotalking about offering broadband connections, not just your pedestrian homemodem speed. The catch is that you will have to sign a three-yearcontract to get your free PC and connectivity, and if you change yourmind, you will be kindly asked to pay back the full costs of thehardware. The disputes on the value of said hardware at the point of thecustomer's "changing their mind" will become a subject ofentertaining stories for years.

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

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

On my Compaq free PCin the US, it was obvious that despite knowing all my details down to thelevel of the maiden name of my grandmother, Compaq still didn't have aclue what products I might be interested in. I was shown with great frequencybanner ads for jobs in banking, despite the fact that my declared professionwas journalist, not an aspiring financier. That's not not to mentionall the ads for Gillette razors.

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

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