My old boss Alan Sugar is at it again. The third generation of Amstrad E-m@iler telephones is launched, with the traditional razzmatazz and uneven product demonstrations. This one adds a colour screen and videophone features, so alongside the email, Web access and online shopping of the earlier versions you can now call up gran and wave, somewhat fuzzily, at the old dear. Of course, she has to have an Amstrad phone as well -- although the device works over Thus' internet infrastructure, it won't make calls to PC-based video conferencing systems or 3G videophones. You can however send and receive emails with pictures attached or MMS messages, so there is some fun to be had even if your pals haven't shelled out for Sugar's latest sweetie.
And shelling out is the name of the game. The gizmo itself costs under a hundred quid with a further discount if you buy two -- thus avoiding Ghostbuster Syndrome (*) -- which is not a lot of money for a box stuffed with the usual Amstradian mug's eyeful of knobs, lights, buttons and twiddly bits. Like mobile phones, however, the box earns its keep by selling the punter expensive services. It costs 17p a day just sitting there by dialling up to check for email, and that's just for starters. MMS cost a quid apiece, text messages are 50p. Video calls are also 50p, plus the phone charges; emails with pictures 25p. It does faxes at a pound a pop, and if you want to download a polyphonic ring tone that'll set you back around four quid. That's before the high priced games and other dial-up cash guzzlers kick in.
If that's not enough, you also get to enjoy "at NO COST" a wide selection of adverts sent to your emailer overnight. The old emailers did that, but as the new one supports colour and video there's no doubt that the adverts will take full advantage of these new features. It remains to be seen for how long this will tie up your phone line -- but make no mistake, Amstrad is going to remain thoroughly connected to your home. You don't have to be a Northern Ireland politician to wonder about the advisability of installing a video camera connected to the phone line and under the direct control of some distant computer -- especially when the kerning on the vividly coloured brochure renders the product's tagline as "Look Who' Stalking". (The brochure also proudly advertises a number of dial-up services available over the emailer, including "Live Physic Readings". I'm not sure whether this involves medieval medical practices involving cupping and leeches or audiobook versions of Stephen Hawking's work on quantum cosmology. Either way, a pleasant prospect.)
That aside, as someone who supports a number of friends and family's PCs I'm delighted with the idea that network appliances such as the E-m@iler exist. Amstrad made a lot of money out of selling word processors to the masses that avoided most of the hassles of running a computer: flogging email, Web and interactive video services that won't get infected by viruses or crash with strange error messages is a worthy enterprise.
If only it weren't set up to be so rapacious. When Sugar's response to the query "what's the business model behind this?" is "That's a very prying question," you know that the even the notably robust boss is mildly embarrassed about that fact.
(*) Ghostbuster Syndrome -- a term first coined in the days of ISDN, when buying a digital phone line was useless unless you knew someone who'd already got one -- thus nobody would be the first. A quandary neatly encapsulated by the movie tag-line, "Who ya gonna call?"