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ATPM 5.09
September 1999



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Apple Cider: Random Squeezings from a Mac User

by Tom Iovino,

If It’s Free…

Going away to college—leaving home for the first time—is one of those moments in your life when you really start to reassess yourself and your place in the world.

For instance, growing up at my parents’ house, there were some constants. The refrigerator was always full. I eventually got my own room. Dad even let me borrow the car to go out on dates. It was a magical existence.

So, it’s no wonder that when I left the comforts of the nest and made the trek to the wild environs of College Park, Maryland, to attend the University of Maryland, I had to adjust my lifestyle.

First, kiss my private room goodbye. Instead, I had to share a one-bedroom apartment—a small one-bedroom apartment at that—with two other guys. I had to manage to do my laundry every few months, if it needed it or not. I learned how to live on those Ramen noodle packets and macaroni and cheese for weeks on end. And the fridge was sort of barren, too. Not a whole lot of fruits and vegetables, but plenty of beer.

Tells you where my priorities lay in those days.

The one day each week we did eat right was Friday. No, we didn’t go to a friend’s house and raid his parents’ fridge—although that did happen from time to time. Instead, the bar down the street, the Santa Fe Café, offered free Buffalo wings from 5 to 7 PM for all their patrons. Y’all know what Buffalo wings are, right? Basically, restauranteurs have found a way to use a part of the chicken which normally gets tossed—the wings—to make a yummy appetizer. Chicken wings are typically deep fried and finally covered with a spicy hot sauce, and served with celery and blue cheese dressing to help quench the fire they cause in your mouth.

Oh, yes. Just biting into that free greasy/spicy goodness while nursing the one bottle of beer I bought and hoped would last for the duration of happy hour, just made the week of eating macaroni and cheese seem worth it.

Those wings were just so good because, well, except for the cost of beer, which I would have been drinking anyway on a Friday night, they were free for the taking.

Now, it seems like there is a push to get people free computers. I know what you’re thinking—computers are significantly more expensive than Buffalo wings, so there has to be some type of catch, right?

I thought so too. So, I decided to do a little poking around.

First, I paid a visit to one of the initial sites to offer free computers to users, Free PC. idealab!, the parent company of the Free PC site, is the first company to offer consumers a personal computer, Internet access and e-mail free in exchange for allowing targeted advertising messages directly on the desktop. USA Networks, Inc.—whose strategic assets include Ticketmaster Online-CitySearch, Inc., Internet Shopping Network/First Auction, and Home Shopping Network—has agreed to invest $10 million in the new company. AltaVista Internet services and USA properties are included in the Free PC home page interface.

When consumers apply for a Free PC they are asked to fill out a detailed questionnaire, which provides the company with typical demographic data (age, income and family status, along with information about personal tastes and interests). These data are then used to determine which advertisements are displayed on the monitor, ensuring that the ads have relevance to the consumer, and assuring corporate sponsors that their ads are reaching highly qualified consumers. Ads appear in a frame that surrounds the working area of the screen, and they’re displayed whether or not the user is online.

Not a bad deal, I’m thinking. Granted, taking delivery of one of the new Compaq Presarios means you will just have to deal with a parade of advertisements on your screen, but your Internet access and e-mail are free. Not a bad deal at all, especially if you are a casual user and just want to e-mail Aunt Myrtle in Sheboygan from time to time.

But what if you have your eye on that spiffy new iMac? The free computer craze hasn’t passed up the Macintosh community. That is, of course, if you believe the hype.

Why yes, my Apple-loving audience. You can point your browser to FreeMac, and sign up to be notified when the big announcement is coming about how to get your free iMac. (Oh, great, just as I finally paid off the iMac I bought a few months ago, now I find I can get one gratis. Just my luck, right?)

Well, after hearing this news, I just had to pay the site a visit. The page opens promisingly enough—an eye-catching graphic promising to begin shipping 1,000,000 iMacs this fall. A simple form which asks for both your e-mail and physical mailing address features prominently on the page. And finally, just below where you would enter your personal information, there is a little disclaimer that reads:

Please look for our notification some time in September, and note that we are not planning on shipping any computers until some time between late October and early November 1999, and our offer will be valid only within the United States. Please do not call our offices, EarthLink’s offices or Apple Computer’s offices as there is no additional information that we will be providing at this time. While we intend to make the Apple iMac available, we have no official affiliation with Apple Computer.

This ultimately means that—for the time being—this offer is a very nice piece of vaporware. And, if what I’m reading is correct, there is a very good chance that this offer will remain just that.

You see, when the Free PC people send out their computers, they come pre-loaded with the advertisements on the hard drive. These ads appear on your screen whenever you are on the computer, which means that for whatever company has agreed to buy into this scheme, they are guaranteed that they will have customers looking at their advertisements. Since I work in public relations, and have done my time in the advertising business, I know that if you get your message in front of enough people for enough time, you will eventually land a paying customer.

As of the time of writing, the Free PC folks have given out over 10,000 computers, and they are gearing up to give away 5,000 more a month. These numbers sound pretty manageable, and, if I were a big time sponsor of this program, I would feel as if my investment was being used properly.

Now, back to FreeMac. According to MacWEEK, FreeMac founder Jonathan Strum has yet to secure funding for his company. As if this weren’t enough, Strum has stated that the advertising model used by Free PC doesn’t work. He has also vowed that he will not establish a customer tracking scheme, which would show financial backers where Internet users go and spend their money online.

Now, let me get this straight. Strum is looking for financial backing, and, as far as he is letting on, is not offering anything tangible for advertisers to sink their teeth into.

I don’t want to go out on a limb here, but I think Strum may find it difficult to land the necessary funding to make this a reality.

MacWEEK also conducted a poll of its readers as to what they think about the FreeMac deal. While many people who participated in the poll sounded interested and wanted more information, 37% of the readers (1,009 of 2,720) said no way—they weren’t interested. Whether this was due to the fact that they already had a faster, snazzier computer, or if they thought the idea was a load of bunk, no one can say.

The idea could work, and 1,000,000 more Macintosh computers on desks out there would definitely help boost Mac’s market share. But one has to wonder if Strum and company have the resources to make this vision a reality. And what happens, if after the launch, FreeMac’s sponsors decide they want to change the rules to gain some additional benefit? Things could get sticky with this offer. Stay tuned.

And, what about me? Did I sign up to get the free iMac?

Well, I have to tell you, just as like the Buffalo wings at that bar in College Park, if it’s free, it’s for me. I filled in the form and will be waiting, along with 250,000 hopeful future iMac owners, for the big announcement supposedly coming this month.

I just hope that this deal doesn’t give me heartburn like those wings did.

apple“Apple Cider: Random Squeezings from a Mac user” is copyright © 1999 Tom Iovino,

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