Coming soon: free gadget to access Net

GENTLEMEN, START your Internet gadgets. The race is on to supply the mass market with the cheapest possible device for accessing the Net - including one which will be given free to people who sign up with a particular Internet service.

The starting gun was sounded in Britain this week by Sir Stanley Kalms, chairman of Dixons, who says that by the end of the year the company will be selling stripped-down computers offering Web access and e-mail for about pounds 200. "They may not even be called computers, just access devices," Sir Stanley said.

The stakes are high. The demand for Net access was underlined yesterday when a survey by New York-based eMarketer said that the number of people with Internet access world-wide will grow 37 per cent this year. It said 35.2 million people will join, bringing the number of active users to 130.6 million, and that by 2003, the number will hit 350 million.

Dixons is not alone in seeking would-be users. Next week the chipmaker National Semiconductor will announce its "Internet appliance on a chip", capable of integrating Internet access into domestic products. Philips and Grundig are already working with the company to design products: one, slated for delivery by Christmas, will be a "Web pad" available free to people signing up for a specific Internet service.

The next contender will be computer company Apple. On 25 July, Steve Jobs, the interim CEO, will reveal the portable version of the hugely successful iMac computer. Apparently priced well below pounds 1,000, the P1, as it is codenamed, may become computing's most desirable fashion item at Christmas.

AOL, the online service provider, is also attempting to join the fray. Along with a small company called iWorks, AOL will produce a cut-price computer for e-mail and Web access. The machine will be offered free to new AOL subscribers, though they will have to agree to sign up for a certain number of years, or face financial penalties.

David Birch, of the Internet consultancy Hyperion, said yesterday that the deluge of new systems shows how the Internet is becoming part of everyday objects. "It's happening more quickly than people had imagined," he said. "E-mail won't be something special, it will be something that you just get with your cable, or digital TV, or mobile phone."