Ads a Small Price for Free PC
"Sophisticated" PC users tend to look down at the Free-PC model, which supplies consumers with a connected Compaq Presario in exchange for a minimum-use commitment and omnipresent onscreen advertisements. So many of us turn up our noses, pay for Internet access, and keep using systems that may be less powerful than Free-PC's offer (333 MHz, 4GB hard drive, and 32MB of memory).
Such snobbishness, it turns out, is somewhat misguided. They don't want
us anyway. Free PC now ships 5000 PCs each month to a growing pool of 1,250,000
applicants. So the chance of snagging one of these puppies is close to the
chance of landing an invitation to the
Consider the reaction of Karla Mickey, an Oklahoma City Web consultant who was one of the first 10,000 people to receive a Free-PC: "I've never won anything before. It was so exciting to get the e-mail saying that I'd been chosen." Adds Bill Jaffin, who is using his Free-PC system to start a home-based real estate business "someone was looking over me, and made this opportunity available."
Since nothing is ever really "free," Free-PC customers give up a certain degree of privacy by supplying demographic data, and yield a certain area on their computer desktop to advertising. It's roughly like having a 1020-by-768 screen that allows you the use of only an 800-by-600 area. The ads are presumably less obnoxious than the TV equivalent, because they follow each user's demographic data. So Mickey, as an educated, single, professional 24-year old woman presumably won't get ads for malt liquor.
Mickey, who signed up on a whim, says her Free PC changed her life. She already has a PC and a laptop at work, and installed the Free PC at home. "Having the hardware, software, and connectivity provided to me turnkey was a great opportunity," she says, proving she already knows PC nomenclature. "The only drawback is the load time, since the ads are animated it tends to slow the machine quite a bit."
Jaffin, with a computer at work and a company-owned laptop, is also no novice. His Free PC lets him segment his computing activity as he gradually builds his new business. For his part, Jaffin notes the ads don't change often enough for his taste, but he doesn't find them especially intrusive. Mickey agrees: "It is a small price to pay for the benefits of hardware, software, and connectivity," she says. "And it is more focused toward my interest than standard spam-type advertising."
Although subsidized PCs aim to draw in the technically uninitiated, a Free PC is designed for people who already know its value. For instance, you can only apply for the program from the company's Web page. And the terms of the agreement require at least ten hours of use per month. That's a commitment that a retiree learning about e-mail a few minutes at a time might be unwilling to promise.
Free-PC is striving to create "online focus groups" in five different categories, effectively delivering eyeballs to advertisers, says Steve Chadima, Free-PC's vice president of marketing. The cost per "qualified" shopper ends up costing a lot less than scattershot ads that appear on television.
"Upper income folks who live in [swanky] Woodside, [California] won't necessarily be a great customer," Chadima says. "We are aiming for the soccer mom, the middle class, the working class. There will be a lot of customers that advertisers could only reach on TV, so this gives them another opportunity to reach those people."
So an advertiser who wants to reach males from 18 to 34 years old who are interested in sports can target their message to people who actually care to hear it. Chadima doesn't expect any political advertisers to poll users, because Free-PC users are "not intended to represent the population as a whole. Most of the applicants are middle class, and already have a PC."
Chadima underscores Free-PC's commitment to privacy. The demographic data is kept in a database separate from the actual names and passwords, he says. To many people, the most personal queries on the application are a general one about income and one about race.
Part of the Free-PC deal is Internet access, supplied through the company's own ISP. This access, however, is available á la carte. Those who apply for the PC can get the access immediately after downloading custom client software. This confines its ads to a smaller area on the screen, even though the ads are still displayed when the user is not online.
But users are still happy, seemingly unaware they may have made a deal with a devil of constant advertising.
"This has become an extension of me," Jaffin says of his Free PC. "It's a wonderful example of something that was too good to be true actually coming true."