So, you're an American who's just bought a new Gateway at Best Buy. After the sales assistant has done their best to flog you an inkjet, a warranty and a wireless keyboard, they say "Or you can make your PC go faster for just fifty bucks."
The upgrade turns out not to be more memory, but a piece of card with a code hidden beneath a scratch-off layer. Type the code into the computer, and it does indeed go faster - the processor suddenly grows some extra cache and hyperthreading.
There's nothing wrong with the idea, except it's terrible.
There's nothing wrong with it, because it's what lots of people do - although mostly in software, where exactly the same image sprouts different features depending on what licence number you type in. And many 'different' chips are identical silicon under the plastic, just qualified to a range of speeds, or with chunks disabled inside the package or in circuit. The manufacturer gets the benefits of mass production, but with a chunk of premium pricing wrung out of some of the run.
I first discovered this at school, where my cheaper Casio calculator had all of the extra functions of my mate's more expensive model - just without them screen-printed on the keyboard. Pressing the buttons in the right order worked just as well for me as for him. Cheered me up. Didn't please him.
And that's why it's such a bad idea. This sleight of hand seems dishonest, even though it isn't. People feel scammed, even though they're not: I paid more than he did, but he's got the same product? Or, you mean I've paid for the clever stuff already and now you want more to let me use it? It's even worse when all you get is a code that you suspect you could find on the Internet anyway. (Which you probably can, in time.)
It makes Intel seem cheap and cheating. I doubt that was the idea: you can see how the marketing department would consider it as a great concept, increasing margins all the way down the OEM chain through to the retailer at no real cost. The only thing they got wrong was the last step: the buyer and what they'd think of the deal. They're getting a faster computer! For a measly $50!
Of course, some people within Intel and their OEMs would have had reservations, which is why the company seems to be test-marketing it on the quiet. There's just one problem with that: there's no such thing as quiet on the Internet. All it takes is one attentive punter to whip out their mobile, take a picture and send it off to Engadget and the world knows. (You'd have thought Intel would have noticed the Internet, after that business with the Pentium FDIV bug - but perhaps the marketing department has forgotten. Its executives haven't: the subject came up in conversation more than once over beers at IDF 2010.)
At best, this makes Intel seem out of touch with the end user - something the company tells us it takes very seriously, these days. After all, it's given Dr Genevieve Bell a lab with real hairy-armed solder-sniffing engineers, so she can take her ethnographic insights and directly influence the technological path of the company. Perhaps they ought to send some marketeers her way too.