On the verge of a new millennium, we live in a world increasingly
This year, for the first time, more than half of all
households in the U.S. have a PC. Contractors now install copper wires and
networking in new homes so that owners can put computers in each room or
contact their microwave from work. TV set-top boxes are bringing the power of
the Internet to the TV.
What is the impetus for this technological revolution? It is coming about
because we are Americans. And we are the cheapest people on the planet.
Isn't that what the Internet is really all about? Getting a deal. The word
"free" is like raw meat to Americans. Try to sell useful kitchen appliances
to consumers for a fair price, and they will criticize the quality. But slap a
corporate logo on a coffee cup, hand it out for free, and people will claw each other's eyes out to get one. Who cares if the food tastes like wood at
Steak Barn? They have free refills.
The wide-ranging, open nature of the Internet has dovetailed perfectly with
the urgent longing of every American to get something for nothing. Silicon
Valley visionaries will claim that the electronic frontier exists because
people are moving toward a new stage of enlightenment. Possibly true, but
nearly everyone I talk to seems to want PCs now because they can get them
for less than for what their neighbor paid.
This country was born, after all, out of an urge to avoid sales tax.
Besides, the core foundation of many of the fastest growing companies today
is that their goods are free, or at least really, really cheap. Yahoo, a
multibillion dollar company with a greater stock value that the vast
majority of industrials, never collects a cent from the vast majority of
A year ago, few had heard of a small PC company called
Emachines. Meanwhile, the company's $399-and-up boxes have made it the third most
popular machines at retail. And then there are companies such as Free-PC,
or NetZero, which have risen to national prominence thorough giving away, respectively, free boxes and free Internet service, as long as one is
willing to wade through an avalanche of spam. Does it work? Free-PC has a
The ripple effects from "free" are enormous. Free PCs mean large contracts
for chipmakers, electronics assemblers, and even makers of cardboard
boxes. More machines also generally lead to paid-for faster ISP
connections or impulse buying on the Net. Skeptical, inaugural users
upgrade to expensive boxes.
The cell phone exists because of the same sort
of bait-and-switch financing. These are billion dollar empires, and all
because someone in Nebraska wanted to get online and ten percent off on the 30th
anniversary edition of Beneath the Planet of the Apes.
What remains especially remarkable about the phenomenon is the lengths
individuals will go for their deal. Every week we receive hundreds of e-mails from angry consumers complaining that they didn't get their cheap
PC or that their free Internet service provider is slow.
The irony, of course, is that THESE PEOPLE ARE ALREADY CONNECTED. That's how they are sending their complaints. In other words, these companies
don't appear to be shafting slow, less-sophisticated individuals toiling under the burden of poverty but someone who wants to bring the universe to the game room.
Europeans, especially older ones, are mystified by this. Why would you want
something that you know won't work anyway? But at the same
time, the average European fridge is about half the size of the U.S.
version and can barely hold two 24-packs of diet soda, and there are no stores like the Price Club where you can get 48 cupcakes on a cardboard palette that taste terrible but are nonetheless a bargain. Europeans lack the
elemental grossness for such affairs.
We are thinking big by being narrow-minded.
Michael Kanellos is a department editor at News.com. He got his watch at a trade-show booth.