'Free' Computers May Not Really
Be Free in Long Run:
by Ken Fermoyle
Which adage do you believe? "Don't look a gift horse in the mouth" or
"There is no such thing as a free lunch." When it comes to taking advantage of
many of those "free" computer offers being hyped recently, you'd best consider
the latter one.
First came the giveaway offers from Free-PC and clones. They promise a free computer to
people who are will to watch continuous ads. The deals include all sort of restrictions on
your Internet activity and require that you agree to answer questionnaires and otherwise
give up aspects of your personal privacy.
So, in a sense, you do pay a price for the "free" computer. You lose a great
deal of privacy and have restricted Internet access. Anyone with the slightest trace of
paranoia won't be comfortable with these deals.
Then came free computers from Internet Service Providers (ISPs) like Gobi and InterSquid.
They give you a "free" computer in return for a long-term (30 to 36 months)
contract for Internet access service at higher-than-normal rates of $26 to $30 per month.
These rates will really seem excessive in a few years for reasons explained below.
Next we got a spate of partnerships between companies like eMachines, Compaq, large
electronic retailers and various ISPs or online services such as CompuServe and Prodigy
(which are not true ISPs).
Most of the latter offers don't give you a free computer after all. Many are like the one
Circuit City and Fry's chains have been promoting in partnership with CompuServe. Staples
has a similar tie-in with MSN, Microsoft Network. Mac fans also are being wooed with
offers of "free" iMacs; more on that later. They offer rebates, usually $400.
The Fry's deal is typical. It includes a $400 rebate on a $499
"eMachines/Compaq" computer with 366 Cyrix MII MMX-enhanced processor, 64MB of
SD RAM, 4.3GB Ultra DMA hard drive, 56Kbps modem, but no monitor. It's decent, low-end,
entry-level home computer. You pay $499 up front and wait for the $400 rebate "within
45 days of credit approval...from eMachines/Compaq/CompuServe Internet Service.".
Ah, but the cost doesn't stop there. Part of the deal is that you must sign a
"contract commitment to a 3-year/36-month subscription for CompuServe 2000 Internet
Service at a monthly rate of $21.95." And therein lies the rub. (You didn't really
think that Steve Case, honcho of AOL, which owns CompuServe, would really play Santa
Claus, did you? Not blooming likely!)
That monthly cost is 10-20% over the going rates (currently running from $17.95 to $19.95)
The kicker is that $21.95 may be double, even quadruple, what industry analysts and other
experts project Internet access to cost in the not-too-distant future! Some predict
monthly access fees may go as low as $5 within a few years, as reported in the Los Angeles
Times during July. Why? There are several reasons.
1. Telephone and Internet gurus report that competitive effects of the
Telecommunications Reform Act of 1996 are finally beginning to appear. We have already
seen long-distance rates drop substantially, to as low as 8 cents per minute in some
cases. This ultimately means lower costs for Internet Service Providers.
2. Broadband technologies that offer fast Internet access are beginning
to show significant growth. More users will turn to DSL (Digital Subscriber Line) and
cable access, as they become available. DSL and cable not only offer fast access, the
"always-connected" benefit and simultaneous multi-user capability, but they can
be very competitive in cost compared with current dial-up access rates. This is especially
true for users who have a second phone line, dedicated to modem use, because that line can
be dropped if you get DSL or cable.
So if you sign a 3-year contract for Internet access at $20 or $22 per month and access
rates drop to $10 or $12 in 12 or 14 months, your "free" computer won't be so
free after all. And don't think you can terminate your service contract early to take
advantage of lower rates. Read the fine print. The CompuServe contract "requires
repayment of $400 rebate plus a $50 cancellation fee" for early termination.
As Bank of America Securities analyst Kurtis King commented in a L.A. Times Business
Section article (July 3), "These contracts are pretty onerous. There's nothing free
about the offers."
How about the FreeMac deal? All details weren't clear at this writing, but itappears that
the offers requires a 3-year commitment to Internet access with Earthlink at $19.95/month
and submission of a demographic profile. The latter would be used to target advertisements
to specific users.
FreeMac plans to distribute 10,000 free machines in October. I have no information yet on
what penalty would be invoked if you try to terminate the contract with Earthlink before
36 month have elapsed.
(Author's Note: Just as I was finishing this article I received an offer of Internet
access through MSN, the Microsoft Network, at $11.99 per month. The deal is available
through Costco, a large membership retailer, and requires a 3-month prepayment ($35.97)
but no long-term contract. Take this as an omen of things to come!)
Copyright 1999 by Ken Fermoyle. Ken Fermoyle has written some 2,500 articles for
publications ranging from Playboy and Popular Science to MacWeek, Microtimes & PC
Laptop. Ken's Korner, a syndicated monthly column, is available free to User Groups. To
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