VirginConnect WebPlayers allow people to surf the Net and send email but can't be used for tasks such as word processing and creating spreadsheets.
The point of the program is to collect valuable consumer information for targeted ads known as direct marketing. It's an attractive and potentially lucrative arrangement for Virgin and its advertisers.
Virgin is not the only company offering free personal computers in exchange for building a reliable audience for advertisers. FreePC, DirectWeb and Gobi also have offered such services.
But Virgin's plan is more elaborate. To join the program, consumers are directed to the Virginconnectme.com Web site, where they can fill out an application for one of the devices.
The application asks for detailed personal information such as name, address, what kind of car the person drives, whether they rent or own their home, what kind of magazines they read, and their hobbies.
Virgin vows not to give
The device, a sleek machine with a flat-panel screen, wireless keyboard and 56K modem, connects consumers to Web sites that are part of Virgin's program via music icons on the device's keys.
The first 10,000 people to sign up will get the device for a three-year rental. Internet access is free the first year and will cost about $50 a year for the subsequent two years.
In exchange, Virgin will be able to send targeted banner advertisements and emails to the consumer.