AT&T and Verizon are poised for another price war, but this one has nothing to do with MOTO RAZRs and smartphones. The US' leading cellular carriers are set to offer netbooks - small, lightweight, low-cost laptop computers - to customers later this year. AT&T has been offering one model on a limited basis via Radio Shack retail outlets already, and both Ma Bell and Big Red should be pitching the machines nationwide in time for back-to-school this Fall.
The netbooks will be sold on the same subsidized basis that cell phone customers are familiar with: $xx after rebate, with a two-year service agreement. AT&T has offered the Dell Inspiron Mini 9 or 12, LG Xenia (a rebadged MSI Wind), and the Acer Aspire One for as little as $49 in recent trials in Atlanta and $99 in Philadelphia. The $49 deal required a two-year commitment to an AT&T DSL/mobile data combo pack starting at $60/month, according to Engadget.
So here's the thing. That $49 Dell Mini 9? Dell was selling a Linux version of it for $198 just today (okay, it was a Vostro A90, which is ever so slightly different than a Mini 9). While you may well want AT&T's DSL/3G data tag-team in your life, you might just be intrigued by the promise of a laptop for fifty bucks, in which case you need to remember this: By the time you pay an activation charge, get your monthly bills with those extra fees & taxes, and forget to send in the rebate slip, odds are you would have been better off paying full price for that netbook sans AT&T's discount and 24 monthly bills.
Forget today's $198 Dell Deal: Current "top of the line" netbooks (is there such a thing?) are going for under $400, and the last-gen models are routinely being cleared out for $250, $200, or even less. Netbooks got real hot real fast, so everyone from Asus to Sony flooded the market with a million not-so-different varieties of them, and now that the economy's tanked, retailers have extras to get rid of. Not to mention the used market: It shouldn't be too hard eBay or Craigslist your way to a sub-$200 netbook.
I'm not meaning to poo-poo AT&T and Verizon's initiative to get subsidized netbooks into the hands of college kids and bloggers across our fair land. I think it's great. I just wonder if US consumers will take to the subsidized pricing model for computers the way we have for cell phones. Remember, we've been buying computers at full price for years now, so we know how to bargain hunt and comparison shop (I think). My theory is we only flock to those "cheap after rebate" cell phone deals because we've never known a better way.