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Some free ISPs shun Mac service

PC users who have long derided Apple Macintosh fans for paying too much for their hardware have another barb to throw: Some of the most-popular free Internet service providers do not support Macs.

    PC users who have long derided Apple Macintosh fans for paying too much for their hardware have another barb to throw: Some of the biggest and best-known free Internet service providers do not support Macs.

    The dearth of free, Mac-compatible ISPs comes despite the growing popularity of such services among Net users in general and Apple's renewed interest in the low-end computer market, most notably with its iMac series.

    To be sure, Mac users can get free dial-up Internet access if they look. For example, FreeInternet.com and 1stUp.com, a back-end technology wholesaler, are among those that support Macintosh computers.

    But, highlighting an age-old dilemma for software developers and Mac owners, support is still not available from a stable of the most-popular free ISPs, including NetZero, Spinway and Juno Online Services.

    Mac users have long faced the limited availability of software--and have grown accustomed to paying more for some applications--as developers focused their attention on the more prevalent Windows-based PCs, which dominate the market.

    The same scenario appears to be playing out among free ISP services: While millions of Internet users enjoy no charge dial-up Net access in exchange for a barrage of banner advertising or for revealing their online shopping preferences, relatively few are logging on with Macs.

    1stUp, which has some 5.5 million registered customers for its free service, would not break out its Mac subscriber numbers.

    Even so, PC-only free ISP services together count far more subscribers than 1stUp's combined total. Juno in August reported it had signed more than 10 million customers to its free service, while NetZero says it has roughly 5 million subscribers. In August, Spinway said it had surpassed 4 million customers.

    In many ways, the free ISP slight is justified.

    Macintosh computers represent about 5 percent of the overall computer market, according to various estimates.

    As a result, the hardware has notoriously cost more than other personal computers, and software for Macs generally is limited. Popular programs often are released first for Windows PCs and are made available for Macs later. Other applications simply are never offered for the Mac.

    However, Apple Computer has had something of a resurgence in recent years, and Mac use is--albeit slowly--on the rise. For example, Apple's unit sales increased 19 percent during the first half of the year, according to market research firm IDC.

    Apple's recent success is largely the result of sales of the all-in-one iMac desktop, a low-cost, easy-to-use consumer PC aimed at new computer users. The free Internet services also have been targeted at new Web surfers and are increasingly popular among mass-market retailers as evidenced by Spinway's deal this month with warehouse retailer Costco.

    Despite their popularity with many cost-conscious consumers, the free ISPs have faced criticism for spotty connections and questions about their ability to turn profits--all while they have mostly ignored the Mac markets.

    One of the largest free ISPs, NetZero, boasts of "free Internet access forever." Macintosh computer users aren't so lucky.

    A NetZero representative confirmed that the company is developing a Mac version of its software, though NetZero will not speculate on when the Mac variation might be available.

    Likewise, Juno, which offers both for-pay and free ISP services, does not support Macintosh. "We do not have either DOS or Macintosh versions of the software (and do not currently plan to develop such versions)," reads a message on Juno's Web site.

    Spinway, which has partnerships with Kmart's Bluelight.com, Yahoo, Costco and others, only supports Windows-based PCs, though the company is seeking beta testers for future releases for Macintosh, Linux and BeOS-powered computers.

    Bluelight's Web site simply reads: "Macintosh support coming soon!"

    1stUp offers its service via deals with AltaVista, Excite and Lycos, among other Internet companies. The company is one of the few to support Macintosh computers; 1stUp's software runs on Macintosh OS 8.0 and newer versions of the operating system.

    Executives said it is not surprising that many of their competitors have been slow to embrace Mac support.

    "One reason is it's a relatively small percentage of the total market. It's not exactly the lowest hanging fruit for a lot of the access providers," said Jonah Steinhart, vice president of marketing for 1stUp. "Also, it's a little trickier on the technical side."

    1stUp executives say they believe the company's support for Mac users has helped it earn some big-name Internet partners.

    "It was important for us to offer a quality Macintosh product to prove the strength of our engineering staff, and it is really nice to give our distribution partners a Macintosh option," Steinhart said. "Macintosh users are a very loyal user base, and it gives our distribution partners an edge."