Hottest word on the Web: Free!

Internet users seem to be saying, 'If it's free, it's me.'
Written by Bob Sullivan, Contributor
Make it free, and they will come. Hotmail found that out -- in 30 months, the free Web-based e-mail service has issued 30 million accounts, and hotmail.com is the Web's 15th-most popular site.

Mirabilis did, too -- its ICQ software claims 25 million users, all thanks to word of mouth. Ask Netscape (Nasdaq:NSCP) about the word "free" -- it found consumers wouldn't pay for Web browsing software when they could get a browser for free.

At the very heart of the World Wide Web's explosive growth is how much one can get for nothing on the Net. E-mail is free, and so are online chats and Internet-based phone calls -- much cheaper than letting your fingers do the walking.

Internet publications are almost exclusively free, like a never-ending magazine rack with no cigar-smoking attendant grumbling for your pocket change. Indeed, Web sites that charge for their content have found the going tough - it's hard to charge for information when it's free somewhere else. Just ask the music industry, which finds the Internet a terrible threat. Compression techniques now allow pirates to copy and distribute songs for free. So industry groups are fighting back, trying to create standards that prevent pirating and creating an infrastructure that allows companies to charge for downloaded music.

But such efforts are decidely swimming upstream, and this week, several companies announced they've decided to try to swim downstream, offering a slew of free products. Just about the only catch is willingness to look at advertising.

It's all free
NetStudio, a graphic design program, became the latest of a long line of software packages being made available to users at no price. Also on the software front, shareware programs like PKZip, which once expired after trial offers, are starting to ask users for their eyes instead of a check.

NetZero is the latest effort to offer free Internet access in exchange for screen real estate. In three months, NetZero says it has more than 300,000 customers.

But in the boldest "free" deal yet, Free-PC.com announced Monday it will offer 10,000 free computers to guinea pigs willing to look at ads all day long.

So far, Hotmail and Mirabilis have proven free products attract incredible attention and millions of dollars from a buyout. But they haven't proven that eyeballs plus ads equals profits. Perhaps for that reason, 500,000 people rushed to apply for the 10,000 computers Free-PC.com is giving away - because there might not be any more.

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