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Virgin wants its free computers back

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The entertainment arm of Virgin in the US is insisting over 10,000 customers return computer equipment given to them free because its partner in the venture, Internet Appliance Network, "is no longer continuing in the business of delivering Internet appliances and services direct to consumers".

Those involved were informed by email that the service will end at midnight on 15 November (next Wednesday). A letter with details on how to return the Webplayer - which provided customers with simple Net access and email - and a pre-paid shipping label will be sent out in the next week or so. However, despite a $25 sweetener in the form of a redeemable voucher, many customers are none too pleased.

This may or may not have something to do with the fact Virgin.com is down and unresponsive. In the last hour, techies have managed to put up a maintenance screen with the message "The virgin.com site is temporarily unavailable due to essential maintenance. Please try again shortly". Anyone believe them? No, we don't either.

We were keen to find out what had gone wrong and what the enigmatic phrase used to explain IAN's disappearance actually meant. Having trawled around four different Virgin subsidiaries we believe we found the relevant spokesman, who, of course, isn't answering his phone at the moment. We await a return call.

Virgin insists that the Webplayer can't be reconfigured to work with any other ISP, but it won't charge you if you don't return it, so you can keep it if you wish. It also recommended customers inform family and friends that their email address would no longer work after 15 November and forward any existing mail to a different address.

The Webplayer device was supplied free to customers and gave Net access and email. A smooth-looking machine, it consisted of a flat screen, wireless keyboard and 56kbps modem. Customers were tied in to Web sites under a Virgin umbrella. In return for the equipment, customers supplied their personal details and allowed themselves to be tracked by Virgin while they surfed. The strange thing is that Virgin has promised to delete all personal information gathered from their databases.

Sounds like Virgin has just given up on the whole thing. ®

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