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ISSUE 532: The high tech office- Jan 4 2000


There is 'free' stuff online, if you don't mind the ads

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 pressure.

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 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 (, 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 ( 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 edges.

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 would-be customers.

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. *


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