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FreeServe to offer Microworkz $199 Net access device

Free ISP's move into hardware next logical step

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UK free ISP FreeServe is in talks with US cut-price computer manufacturer Microworkz to bring the vendor's $199 iToaster Internet appliance over to Britain. The deal, which Microworkz said is close to completion, almost certainly covers the mysterious £200 Web PC Dixons chairman Sir Stanley Kalms recently said his company would soon offer. Dixons is Britain's biggest High Street consumer electronics chain, and owner of FreeServe. The iToaster is essentially a set-top box-styled PC that runs the BeOS rather than Windows. It's based on a 266MHz Intel CPU and contains 32MB RAM and a 2.1GB hard drive. It's designed to be a very cheap and easy to use device for accessing the Web and... er... that's it. FreeServe isn't Microworkz' first ISP partner -- the company is believed to be talking to AOL, presumably to supply AOL-branded iToasters. AOL is also working with US budget PC company eMachines, but that's more to do with its CompuServe subsidiary than the main 'AOL Anywhere' strategy. Whether FreeServe's interest in the iToaster derives from AOL's connection with Microworkz -- the two companies are the best of enemies in the battle to be Britain's biggest ISP -- but it makes a great deal of sense for FreeServe to base the second stage of its strategy on supplying cheap Net access devices to the great many Britons who don't yet own a PC. Certainly, FreeServe's high-profile High Street advertising campaign is likely to put the Net in the minds of many people who, lacking a home computer, would otherwise just assume it wasn't for them. Dixons itself would love to get into cheap systems that could easily be sold without the expensive tech support overhead standard PCs usually bring with them. Kalms undoubtedly looks back on the boom years of the early 80s when he sold millions of Sinclair Spectrums with a great deal of nostalgia, and wonders if he could do it all over again with the iToaster. ®

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