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MS unleashes ‘free’ Web access Companion

Subject to three year contract, of course, but it's still tempting...

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Microsoft will offer the Great Unwebbed access for free - almost - when the eMachines version of the MSN Web Companion goes on sale later this month. The eMachines version of the device will retail at $349 with a "total in-store transaction of $400," but by signing up for a three year MSN contract at $21.95 a month, customers will get a $400 rebate.

No data, as yet, on what happens outside the US, but the point of today's announcement is clearly to catch the wave of the famous "holiday season" that apparently exercises the minds of American vendors so greatly. There is a slight cost cut in that the monitor is sold separately, so we deduce either that accounts for the difference between $349 and $400 or the deal actually costs a minimum of $50 or thereabouts, but still, the whole thing is compellingly free-looking upfront for people with no money and a thirst to surf.

THere will be a major retail push, starting at the end of the month, with Circuit City, Office Depot, Wal-Mart, MicroWarehouse, Micro Center and Cyberian Outpost all on board. The deal is right up the street of eMachines, which has applied Korean volume manufacturing to the production of dirt cheap PCs to some effect in recent years, and it's basically the first shot in the MSN versus AOL war scheduled to break out in this quarter.

The eMachines Companion itself runs CE, IE, "is automatically updated periodically via the Internet for worry-free maintenance" (we accept there must be people in the world who don't find this chilling), and it has a NatSemi Geode 200MHz CPU, 32 megs RAM, V.90 modem and twin USB ports. Confusingly, it uses Insignia Solutions' Jeode PersonalJava for its Java functionality. Insignia was a Register stock tip a couple of months back, but we fear we only mentioned it to a bloke who came by the office, and forgot to tell the rest of you.

All of this, however, is just the opening salvo. Microsoft, you won't have forgotten, is also due to roll with satellite broadband access in conjunction with Gilat this quarter, while the AOL-Hughes axis is poised to fire back with its own combo. But how better a deal than free can you get? ®

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