Jane Wakefield: Scrooge comes out of the cold

BT's unmetered announcement, and Psion's Microsoft battle...

As the Beach Boys might have sung if they wrote songs for large telcos -- Everybody is surfing, surfing on BT.

Yes they have finally done it. After weeks of pressure and speculation, BT (quote: BT) announced this week that UK surfers can have the Christmas present they really want -- unmetered access.

We have come a long way from the bah humbug days of old, when BT never mentioned the unmetered word in polite society. The mean old Scrooge telco which everyone loves to hate has finally been converted. The Oftel ghost of Internet past waved bits of paper showing BT how it had done things wrong before and the government ghost of Christmas future shouted soundbites about how it had to contribute to the shiny new millennium. And so BT unshackled itself from its chains of profit and gave us Surftime.

Surftime offers a range of packages, for the light user who only pops on the Net on a rainy Sunday afternoon through to the really sad git with no life who spends day, night, dusk and dawn online. At £34.99 a month for 24-hour, seven days a week access is unlikely to attract the average onliner but the £6.99 a month for weekend use will probably prove popular.

Most of the ISPs I talked to in the light of the announcement were treating it with caution -- after all it is not so long ago that BT offered them a seemingly amazing tariff which turned out to be not that amazing at all. Like coming out of a destructive relationship, ISPs seem wary of jumping into bed with the first telco that comes along promising them great deals.

Besides, for the majority of free ISPs, there will no longer be the carrot of shared telephone revenue and they will have to rely on e-commerce and advertising in order to make money. Or charge a subscription fee, which will hike the price of the offers by at least £10.

BT admits the details of the deal, such as how revenue will be shared and how it will affect ISPs which use other telcos, are yet to be bashed out. But I guess, just as the transformed Scrooge couldn't wait to buy the largest duck in the shop come Christmas morning, BT couldn't wait to get the deal out of the door in time for Christmas.

And, just as in the real story, there is a Tiny Tim who BT has allowed to smile again. One ZDNet reader tells me the offer will transform his life and that he is more than happy to pay £34.99 a month for the Surftime offer as he currently pays around £700 per quarter for his phone bill of which the huge majority is Internet time. He is beating a path to BT's door as we speak to congratulate the telco on its Christmas spirit.

While one large corporation has made new friends in the Internet world, Microsoft has found a new European penpal, which it intends to write to every week and come and visit when it can. Under its deal with Swedish wireless giant Ericsson, Microsoft will have its microbrowser installed in some of Ericsson's handhelds. But there is, as yet, no mention of where Windows CE will fit into the deal.

It has been a good few months now since Microsoft jumped on the wireless wagon and adopted the Martini catchphrase "anytime, anyplace, anywhere". But while it sings the praises of wireless, handheld manufacturers have been less than enthusiastic about Windows CE, the operating system with which Microsoft intended to power its wireless revolution.

If operating systems hung out in playgrounds, EPOC would be the one in the cool Nike trainers, while WinCE would be the slightly underdressed new kid that no-one is quite sure of.

Although investors do not seem to agree with me. While Microsoft and Ericsson shares have been riding high since the friendship was cemented, little Psion (quote: PON), the inventor of EPOC, has seen its shares plummet.

Psion remains defiant, taking the announcement to mean Microsoft has finally thrown in the towel with WinCE. With Microsoft coming out of the cold and joining clubs it previously thought were below it, like Bluetooth and WAP, perhaps it will also become a Symbian convert.

Maybe the large corporations of the world are finally realising the importance of having friends. As Scrooge found out it is better to be generous than worry too much about making money. And, lets face it, neither BT nor Microsoft are exactly short of cash.

Happy Christmas one and all.

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