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Those 'bargain' PCs have long strings attached
technofile  by al fasoldt

Columns and commentaries in a life-long dance with technology
Simple gray rule

Those 'bargain' PCs have long strings attached

Technofile for Aug. 15, 1999

By Al Fasoldt

Copyright © 1999, The Syracuse Newspapers

When's a bargain not a bargain?

When it's something you wouldn't have bought anyway.

Take those cheap or "free" PCs you see advertised. (Please take them! Far away!)

You don't have to be Ralph Nader to smell a rat here. You're not getting something for nothing. You're getting something for something and what you get isn't what you would have bought anyway.

I'm not talking about the PC side of this sales gimmick. I'll admit that some of the ones I've seen advertised are dogs. But others are just regular PCs, not good and not bad.

What I'm referring to is the notion that you get something for nothing if you sign up for Internet service for 36 months or more not with your reliable local provider, of course, but with somebody else on the other side of the country. Somebody your brother-in-law warned you about, maybe.

You'd have to be crazy.

Here's an example. After rebates and a special "price adjustment" for Internet access, a Hewlett Packard PC that should sell for $800 to $950 was advertised at $199. All you had to do was pay $400 for three years of Internet access through Prodigy.

I don't want to say bad things about Prodigy. I'll just point out that it's one of the worst ways to access the Internet. (The worst way is America Online. The second worst way is an AOL subsidiary called CompuServe. Prodigy is next up the ladder of unsuccess.)

Any regular national Internet provider is better than Prodigy. But the unhappy thing about this $199 offer is that you shouldn't even be thinking about a national provider.

Any regular local Internet provider is better than a national provider. Think of all the usual reasons the local provider has a stake in the community, you can speak to someone who will actually remember your name when you have a problem and you know that local conditions (bad storms, for example) will be given top priority by the tech crews. And, of course, you feel better knowing that your $20 a month is helping give one of your neighbors a good job.

The idea behind this kind of sales pitch is simple. King Gillette, the inventor of the razor that had a protected blade, said it best many years ago: Give away the razors and sell the blades. Give away the PCs and sell the services they need.

That way, you can hide the real cost when consumers line up to buy your products. They think they're getting a PC for $199, when they're really getting a bad bargain for $400 more.

It's not just PCs that are sold this way. The other day I bought a really nice color printer for $49. It was $99 with a $50 rebate. It works great. The print quality is outstanding.

Guess how much the color ink cartridges cost? $38. And they're made only by you guessed it the company that makes the printer. I'm sure this company would have been happy to sell the printer for $49 with a $50 rebate. I pay you $1 and you pay me $38 here and $38 there and $38 some other time. Who do you suppose benefits the most from that?

OK, so I'm out $50, plus $38, plus al the other $38 purchases over the next few years for ink. I'll use my black-and-white inkjet for normal printing and try to keep my bank from crying uncle.

But I'd never fall for the cheap PC trick. Make sure you don't, either.

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