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ISSUE 503: The high-tech office- June 15 1999

ALAN ZISMAN

There may be no such thing as a free lunch,
but there are free computers -- for a price

In the 1960s classic science fiction novel The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress, author Robert Heinlein features a self-aware computer that aids a group of revolutionaries in establishing Lunar independence from Earth.

Like much of Heinlein's writings, it was a better lecture than novel. (Sorry Heinlein fans!) The author is perhaps best known for giving us the acronym TANSTAAFL, or there ain't no such thing as a free lunch.

But this column isn't about intelligent computers, it's about the new trend in free computers.

Computer prices have come down, way down. Even in Canadian dollars, it's possible to get quite a capable machine for half of what we used to pay. Even so, a free PC is worth a comment or two.

However, keep in mind Heinlein's acronym along with the advice that "you get what you pay for."

Take Free-PC, for example (www.
free-pc.com
). Go to the Web site and you can apply for a free 333-MHz PC, along with free Internet access. To apply, though, you have to send in a bunch of personal information including your name, address, phone, sex, date of birth, names of other family members, annual household income, plans for use of computer, other interests, car ownership, magazine subscriptions and more.

While many Web surfers habitually lie on forms, there's a tendency to give more or less correct information here, since you wouldn't want the free PC to go to a fictitious address, would you?

Notice that you've given out all this information before getting the free PC. In fact, whether or not they give you a free PC, the company has added a lot of information about you to their database, a database which they never claim won't be sold.

And if you do get the free PC, you'll find that it has some interesting features. The screen resolution is fixed at 1024x768, with 800x600 of that devoted to running a customized version of Win98 and the remainder for displays ads. Every time you go online, the ads are updated. And if you don't use your Internet account often enough, the machine will go online automatically to update the ads. The ads are stored on your machine, in a hidden two-gigabyte partition on your hard drive.

Don't confuse Free-PC with PC Free (www.pcfreecomputers.com).

When I last checked, PC Free's Web site was non-informative, claiming they needed to better respond to overwhelming demand.

Earlier, the site was offering a US$39.95 per month computer plus Internet package, with the trade-off being that the homepage would be pre-set to Compaq's AltaVista portal and a desktop icon would point to Compaq's Shopping.com mall site.

Mac owners get their own scheme. One Stop (www.shopss.com) offers (along with a variety of other schemes) a free iMac. The catch? You need to buy US$100 in merchandise a month for three years. That's nearly CDN$5,000 to get the "free" PC. Locally, the model is available for $1,900 or so.

These schemes are not necessarily bad. Sure, you're giving Free-PC a lot of personal information and have to watch a lot of on-screen ads, but it's not as if we're not bombarded with ads already. In fact, most of
us have learned to automatically filter out the ad content.

However, the irony of all this is that the people who could most benefit from free PCs are the least likely to be offered them (i.e. families who cannot afford today's low PC and Internet prices do not offer the sort of "demographic" that advertisers want).

In any event, it's not clear from any of these Web sites if Canadians can apply for these schemes. The closest I've seen is a package being widely advertised by Canadian PC manufacturer, IPC (www.ipc.ca).

They're offering a deal with ISP Internet Direct. It allows you to sign up for a two-year contract for Internet services at $24.99 per month. You have to prepay the first eight months ($199.92) and then you can purchase a $499 PC.

Like most of the U.S. deals, it is
a 333-MHz Celeron unit. For $999 you can up the ante to a 450-MHz Pentium-III.

Nice prices, as long as you're prepared to be locked into the contract with Internet Direct.

We're not quite at the point where we're seeing offers for free PCs in breakfast cereal and Cracker Jack boxes, but we're not that far off. *

Congratulations to Vancouver animator Brent Heil for winning the international 3D studio VIZ Image and Animation contest sponsored by software company Autodesk.

His animation, 80 Pacific Highway, as well as a number of other contest win-
ners, can be viewed at the contest Web site at www.ktx.com/cfe/html/
3ds_viz_image_contest.html
. *



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Alan Zisman is a Vancouver educator, writer, and computer specialist. He can be reached at E-mail Alan