ISSUE 532: The high tech office- Jan 4
There is 'free' stuff online, if you don't mind the
Now that the holidays are over and assuming
that your home and work computers survived the dawn of the new year,
it's time to move forward.
Of course, for many of us, January means overextended
credit cards, and therefore the worst time to think of starting
anything new -- if new means it costs something.
Luckily, the Internet has given new meaning to the
word "free" -- a word that's always welcome, but never more than at
this time of year. As always, however, free rarely comes without a
catch, and that's as true digitally as in the real, physical world.
My favourite e-mail program, Eudora, has always had a
free version -- Eudora Light. The full-featured product, Eudora Pro,
has been available as a time-limited free version, but users wanting to
make use of it full-time have had to buy it, for about $69.
With competing products such as Microsoft's
Outlook Express freely available, or bundled in with popular software
such as Microsoft Office, Eudora's business model was coming under
As a result, the next version of Eudora Pro, starting
with version 4.3, will be free, but with a catch.
Eudora Pro 4.3 (now available in prerelease beta for
Mac and Windows from www.eudora.com) lets you choose how you
want to install it. There is a free Light version, which is a
modernization of the existing Light versions, or a full-powered Pro
version for free -- with ads on-screen. If you want the power of the
Pro version, without the ads, then you have to register with Eudora,
sending them money in exchange for a code to turn off the ads.
We'll see if this business model works, just like the
commercial TV and radio that we all take for granted. If it works, it
may well be applied to other programs. Perhaps the next version of
Microsoft Office will be free, with the animated paperclip popping up
with words from our sponsors!
The free-but-with-ads model is also being used by Encyclopedia
Britannica. First CD-ROMs and then the Internet have all but done
in the company's formerly lucrative market niche selling printed
encyclopedia sets for $2,000 to anxious parents.
EB entered the CD-ROM market late and their offerings
were expensive compared to the competition. They tried, also
unsuccessfully, to repackage the information online as a paid
subscription service (www.eb.com, still available for US$5 a
month). Now, they're trying again -- this time as a free,
advertiser-supported site. When this was first announced in late
October, the site (www.britannica.com) was unable to handle the
massive number of visitors and was forced to shut down. It's been
retooled and is back up and running. The first page looks like it's
aiming to be yet another Web portal, offering the day's news headlines
and a free e-mail account. But it takes just a couple of clicks to be
able to search that massive storehouse of information.
But just because it's free doesn't automatically make
it a success.
One of last year's big technology business
stories was the "free computer" story. There were a couple of different
plans. One offered a PC where the operating system and applications
took up the centre portion of the screen, with ads appearing around the
More common, though, were a number of offers of a free
PC for customers who contracted to buy several years' worth of Internet
access. While initially these services seemed wildly popular with
consumers, both sorts of ventures seem to be falling on hard times.
There were complaints about companies being unable to fill orders and,
where the free hardware arrived, many consumers had problems with
quality. Internet Service Providers discovered (no surprise here), that
they weren't really interested in being in the business of providing
hardware support and service and that they typically didn't have the
cash up-front that they needed to purchase large numbers of computers
to give to wannabe customers.
As well, with increased awareness of high-speed Net
alternatives such as cable and ADSL, many potential customers were
unwilling to lock into three years of slower phone-line service.
Perhaps a sign of the times was the failure of Microworkz, one
of the free PC pioneers, leaving behind a host of lawsuits from unhappy
FreePC, another freebie pioneer, announced in
November 1999 that it would be merging with low-end PC-maker eMachines.
It's been said, even in this column, that "the
Internet changes everything." Certainly, that's the case for companies
such as Eudora, Ency-
clopedia Britannica and Microworkz. All three have experimented with
ways to make "free" pay off -- with mixed results. *