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Free stuff at midnight

CompUSA's Midnight Madness sales in many ways captured the essence of what makes the Windows phenomenon--and the entire computer industry, for that matter--tick: free stuff.

As the Microsoft PR manager explained the day's victories--500 people on average appearing for CompUSA's Midnight Madness sales, a 3/4 mile-long line at a Fresno store to get copies, no reports of violence--his assistant approached with an opened box. The first copy of Windows 98 had been shoplifted, and someone nearby had it stuffed in their pants.

"Well, we can't say it was stolen," he said, flustered. "But clearly?uh?something happened."

The incident in many ways captured the essence of what makes the Windows phenomenon--and the entire computer industry, for that matter--tick. Namely: free stuff. We Americans are a simple yet hearty people. Put a fence around a body of water and we will throw pennies into it. Use the word "free" or "blowout" in an ad, and we will come.

The computer industry itself has been one of the prime innovators of the free giveaway. If you want corporate customers and investors to take note of your cutting-edge encryption technology, the first step is to give out pens.

And free was what the entire Midnight Madness sales were all about at CompUSA. Close to 350 people were lined up outside the store at 11:30 p.m., half an hour before the sale began. Most hadn't heard that Bill Gates was planning to attend. Most, in fact, weren't even there to get discounted copies of Windows 98 for $89.90.

No, they were there because CompUSA promised free, or near free, stuff: $98 Celeron-based computers for the first ten people in line, 98 cent CD-ROM drives for the next ten, and 98 cent modems for the next. For those who showed up later, there was a Clik-Art disc for 98 cents (after a $9 rebate). A local radio station played '70s soft rock tunes ("Dust in the Wind" by Kansas) and gave away T-shirts out front. Patrons scrambled for coupons for $1 off at Jamba Juice.

"Are there any more of the CD-ROMs left?" asked one man.

"I don't know," said the police officer. "You will have to ask her."

The "her" was Mary Ward, direct-sales account manager for CompUSA, whose job last night was to hand out the discount certificates to those waiting outside. Policeman flanked her on both sides. Although agitated, the crowd was relatively well-behaved--no drunken louts with body paint or foam fingers. Mostly the police answered questions about what was on sale and stopped people from trying to take cuts.

"This is amazing," Ward said, before returning to her folders.

"If I would have known about the free computer, I would have made him get here earlier," said one woman, pointing a thumb toward her husband. They arrived at 8:30 in the evening. For three hours of waiting, they received a discount on Mavis Beacon Teaches Typing.

Dick Fosselman, a graphic artist from San Francisco, was the first in line for the Celeron computer. He arrived at 11:15 a.m., 13 hours earlier. "I came here because this store is new and less well-known," said Fosselman. "The San Bruno store had 15 or 20 people in line by 9:30."

He was lucky. Number 12 was not. Number 12, who declined to give his name, arrived at 12:30 p.m., two spots out from a $98 computer. While he seemed sheepish about providing details, his son wasn't.

"He got up at 3 a.m. and saw the ad in the newspaper and didn't do anything," he said. Number 12 first went to Santa Clara, but didn't get there until 9:30, when ten people were already in line. He then ventured to the city, saw the line, figured he had time, and ran another errand. He became destined for a 98 cent CD-ROM drive.

Goofy as the event might sound, it was tough to resist its optimistic magnetism. People around the world, from Australia to Asia to Europe, had stood in line on the same night for the opportunity to shop for electronics goods. The wide spectrum of humanity showed up. There were Chinese teens in Gap sweatshirts, young people who came to make out in line, guys in shiny brown suits toting cell phones, and a lot of bald guys with facial hair. A man with tattoo of a spider between his index finger and thumb chatted with parents carrying a dozing three-year-old. Even CompUSA chief executive James Halpin showed up. To prove he was a regular guy, he wore a CompUSA golf shirt and a large, gold Rolex.

And the prices, after all, were pretty good. Being born in this country, even I saw the power in that, and I don't even own a home computer. Maxtor hard drives and no-name memory modules were selling at $30 off, after rebates. Prices were slashed on power cords and monitors. Even things that weren't on sale were going fast. One customer was buying "Total Annihilator" and "Deer Hunter--Extended Season," and neither game had been discounted.

"Customers were here to have fun," said the Microsoft representative.

Senior reporter Michael Kanellos loves free stuff, but he would have happily paid full price for Mavis Beacon Teaches Typing.