Is Microsoft ripping off its beta testers?

You're very ill so you go to a doctor. He says he's testing a new drug that could make him a multimillionaire. Would you like to try it? It may save your life. Or it may kill you.

Oh, by the way, he's going to charge you to be his guinea pig. And you have to pay in advance. That's how many computer users must feel these days since Microsoft invited 100,000 home users to preview Win98. Previewers pay $29.95 (£18.48) plus shipping, handling and tax to get a first look at Microsoft's OS-in-waiting.

MS says it's merely responding to customer demand. It can't afford to give free copies to all the people who want a preview, so it is making it available at a nominal fee for those who want to test it.

But I am concerned that Microsoft may be taking advantage of its dominant position. Though this is a consumer release, many users, developers and system administrators for example, don't want a preview so much as they need one. As much information in advance to prepare for what's ahead is essential. Same is true for that ever-growing work-at-home population.

They're trapped. And MS is taking advantage of that fact. Don't believe me? Just look at the terms of the beta preview:

No discount, rebate or free upgrade when the final is released; MS only supports "critical" issues; Beta expires December 98; MS doesn't want your feedback

What a contrast to the browser wars. Microsoft has browser competitors, so it gives its Internet Explorer away for free. But since there's no OS competitor, Microsoft can overcharge for the product AND charge consumers to test it.

MS could provide a download (albeit a hefty one) and save the materials costs for consumers. But then there'd be no extra cash for Microsoft.

Is Microsoft providing a needed service at a fair fee, or could it, possibly, maybe, taking advantage of the fact it has no competition?