Law Office Computing
Ecommerce and the Free Computing Movement
How can CompuServe afford to give you a free PC just for signing up for their Internet Service? How can Alta Vista give you free Internet Service? How can EGroups give you free listserv and web hosting services? The Internet economy abounds with free services and products and more are offered everyday. What is really amazing is that most of the free services are valuable business tools that actually work. The end of the free everything movement is not yet in sight. Observers of the Internet phenomenon, myself included, wonder where it will all end.
Actually the economics of the free everything movement is not as bizarre as it may seem. Take for example the $400 CompuServe PC rebate scheme. CompuServe itself calculates the present value of their 36-month Internet offer at a little under $800. If they are giving you a $400 rebate all they have really done is to give you a 50% discount on the standard price of their service. And while that 50% discount might be a good deal for a few months, if the free Internet assess movement started by Alta Vista takes hold, being locked in to CompuServe for three years at $21.95 a month may not be your best deal. Indeed, it may be a very bad deal. Prodigy has a similar proposal but my advice is to stay away from that service entirely. I did not find the Prodigy service to be of the same quality as CompuServe and it has a history of questionable service.
That said, from CompuServeís point of view, the alleged $400 rebate (aka 50% discount) it is dynamite deal. The marginal cost of providing service to you is virtually nothing. Thus they are giving you $400 with one hand to get $800 back with the other hand which is not a bad deal at all! Of greater value to them, however, is the fact that, in the lingo of the Internet, they have captured your "eyeballs" for three years if you continue to use their service. And it is your eyeballs that make this whole thing really work. The thinking is that advertising is where the money is on the Internet. Certainly over the last thirty or forty years that has been so in broadcast TV and it is most likely so in regard to the Internet. It is that reality that is driving the so-called "dot com" hysteria. Eyeballs are big business and if CompuServe can establish a substantial market share and keep your eyeballs glued to its website, it can garner more advertising revenue. That is the name of the game in this formative stage of the Internet. Sequestering your eyeballs with a long term contract is smart business, even if there may well be a downside up ahead when consumers find themselves locked into a contract to pay $21.95 per month for a low speed connection at a time when Internet Access becomes ubiquitous, high speed and virtually free. Three years is a lifetime in Internet time and I am betting that CompuServe will be forced to provide some additional services in order to keep their book of customers. CompuServe is only the most visiable of the many players. There will be more and the services they offer will astound you.
The fact is that it is just not eyeballs that drive this thing. Ears count as well. One of the most fascinating and useful free products on the Internet is a new site called MyTalk.com. MyTalk is one of the most devilishly clever and practical sites on the Internet. MyTalk gives you a free email address where you can have email sent directly or forwarded from your standard email account. MyTalk then provides you with an 800 number that you call from anywhere. Using voice commands you sort through the email that is on your MyTalk account and select those you need to hear. By saying "read it" MyTalk will read your email to you over the telephone. That means that if you are traveling you can give out your MyTalk email address to your friends and relatives and you can have your office forward important emails to the MyTalk system. You can even have MyTalk send your cell phone or beeper a message telling you have email from your spouse or client. Dial up the 800 number from your cell phone and get your email -- itís that simple. And did I mention free? Yes itís all free except for the fact that you have to listen to very short spot ads every few minutes. Itís a small price to pay for a wonderful service. If you donít like the spot ads you can buy a much more robust voice driven time and contact management program from MyTalkís parent company Portico atwww.getportico.com. By the way, the computer that reads your email to you sounds like a little bit like Hal in 2001. But the computer that talks to you about your messages and responds obediently to your every voice command has one of the most pleasant human voices I have ever heard. Check this one out. I guarantee you will not be disappointed.
My final free tip of the month is a web site atwww.visto.com which provides you with a personal and secure website that can be accessed from any web browser. I have spent a lot of time in the last year trying to find a way to be able to get to my Outlook calendar from remote places. Visto allows you to put your Outlook calendar up on the website and sychronize it so you can always check your schedule wherever you may be. Visto also offers free email, a task list and a document depository where you can put documents you want to work on from home or any other computer that has internet access. That is all free if you donít use up more than 20 megabytes of space on their server. For an additional $4.95 a month, plus 15 cents a minute they plan to offer a voice service that will access your mail, calendar and address book from any telephone via an 888 number. I have not been able to make the beta version of the service work yet but when it does I will use it and report back to you. Just think, you need to know your appointments for next Friday while you are driving in your car late at night. If this system actually works all you need do is dial up the 888 number and ask!! I hope they get this service up and running soon!!
There will be more and more competition to provide new and better services to Internet users. So long as our eyeballs and ears remain valuable to the ecommerce world those services will be essentially free. We are in for an interesting ride! See you when we get thereówhere ever that may be.