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AT&T, America's largest land-line phone company and second-largest mobile service provider, is launching a trial program of subsidized netbooks with two-year contracts for wireless and wired internet access, with initial buy-in starting at fifty bucks.

The AT&T trial program will be offered only at eight company owned retail locations in Atlanta, Georgia, and another eight in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.

As The Reg reported early Thursday, such bundles indicate a possible tectonic shift in the PC landscape by locking users into computing hardware selected by service providers, and keeping them locked for the duration of the contract.

AT&T is testing whether customers will want to buy their laptops like they do their mobile phones: cheap at first but expensive over the long haul. Subsidized netbooks sold like phones is a service supported by Linux leaders as a way to beat Microsoft's Windows in the growing netbook segment, and that's been mooted as a possible direction for Google.

At this stage, though, it's not clear whether AT&T will make Linux or Windows available on its netbooks.

Subscribers will be able to choose from four of what AT&T calls "ultra-portable mini laptops," but which the rest of the world knows as netbooks: the Acer Aspire One, Dell Inspiron Mini 9 and Mini 12 (arguably more a notebook than a netbook), and LG Xenia, each equipped with AT&T 3G wireless capability. All four are offered by their manufacturers with Windows XP, but can run Linux.

The buy-in prices will range from $49.99 to $249.99. To get a subsidized netbook, subscribers will need to sign up for AT&T's Internet at Home and On the Go plan, which includes the company's wireless DataConnect and wired Fast Access DSL plans starting at $59.95 per month.

The bundle will also include a half-hour of ConnecTech in-store technical support and a pre-installed copy of the company's Communication Manager software to manage both Wi-Fi and 3G connection. In addition, the netbookers will have unlimited access to nearly 20,000 AT&T Wi-Fi Hot Spots.

Sweetening the deal is the fact that Fast Access DSL adds wired connectivity in subscribers' homes. If, however, subscribers want to skip that service, they can sign up only for the DataConnect plan - but the prices will jump to $99.99 to $349.99 for buy-in and $40 per month for a 200MB plan $60 for 5GB.

The offer is not limited to netbooks. AT&T is also offering a 3G-equipped Lenovo X200 ThinkPad for $749.99 with the wired-and-wireless plan and $849.99 with the wireless-only plan. Lenovo's online store is today selling the X200 for $1,129.

But whether this service-cum-hardware model includes an ultra-portable mini laptop, a netbook, or a notebook, it most certainly includes one important element: a challenge to the traditional open-access model in which a customer purchases their own preferred computing hardware, and then subscribes to a broadband service of their own choosing. ®

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