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Net Prophet - by Dylan Tweney

February 22, 1999

FreePC could usher in an era of free stuff and ceaseless advertising

A couple of weeks ago, a start-up called FreePC (www.freepc.com) unveiled its business plan, which is to give away free Compaq computers in exchange for detailed personal information and the right to monitor the customers' Internet surfing and buying practices.

As the old saying goes: Sure, FreePC will lose money on every sale, but they'll make it up in volume.

Now, I'm certainly not going to complain, as some observers have, that FreePC's fervent interest in its customers' online habits represents a dangerous invasion of personal privacy. After all, I work for a publication that is given away free in exchange for detailed personal and professional information.

In the case of FreePC, what's being offered in exchange for that information is a fairly powerful Pentium system with a retail value that's probably somewhere around $1,000. It's a sign of just how far the Internet has come in the last few years that such a plan could even be credible.

The program works because each of FreePC's customers represent, over a span of several years, well over $1,000 in online advertising and online sales revenue -- enabling the company to cover its costs and have enough left over for a tidy profit.

As business tools, FreePC won't be tempting to any but the most cash-strapped companies, because all that advertising and usage tracking would represent a significant leakage in productivity -- not to mention competitive intelligence.

But in the consumer world, FreePC is hardly the first company to try such a gambit. Free e-mail companies, such as Juno, offer free Internet e-mail in exchange for the right to target advertisements to you.

And there have been several experiments in free long-distance telephone service, first in Europe and lately in the United States. Using these services, you can call anyone you want, as long as you're willing to have your conversations interrupted every few minutes by a short commercial.

Step into the Twilight Zone

Why stop at telephones, e-mail, and PCs? Imagine, if you will, a future where almost everything can be had for free, provided you have sufficient tolerance for advertising.

Picture a free metropolitan shuttle service with television-equipped buses that continuously show commercials to passengers.

Want free utilities? Someone will surely figure out a way to offer electricity at no cost, provided you're willing to install special lightbulbs that project advertisements onto your living room walls.

Free food? It's conceivable that someone will try to support food production and distribution through highly targeted advertisements of some kind. After all, milk cartons and cereal boxes are already covered with advertising.

For that matter, why not use advertising to support a revamped health-care system, in which insurance companies would underwrite the medical care of those people willing to tattoo the companies' logos on prominent parts of their bodies?

Of course, in such a world, there will be no privacy or peace of mind except for those well-off enough to purchase premium goods and services. But, as Sun CEO Scott McNealy recently snapped at a conference in Switzerland, you already have zero privacy, so you'd better get used to it.

Will the Internet usher in an era of advertising-supported everything? Write to me at dylan@infoworld.com.

Dylan Tweney (dylan@infoworld.com) has been covering the Internet since 1993. He edits InfoWorld's intranet and Internet-commerce product reviews.

Previous columns by Dylan Tweney

Netrepreneur of the Year is a crusader for Web site usability
February 15, 1999

Smart Frog will help get Internet shopping sales really jumping
February 8, 1999

Online service woes dog vendor sites and hinder Internet sales
February 1, 1999

Display technologies will change the way we look at the Web
January 25, 1999

Every column since August, 1997

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