Zonbu launches barebones subscription laptops

Zonbu on Wednesday launched a subscription notebook PC that the company claims will free users from the hassle of computer maintenance.

Unfazed by the failure of earlier subscription-based PCs from vendors like PeoplePC, Zonbu Wednesday launched an inexpensive subscription notebook that the company claims will free users from the hassle of computer maintenance.

In addition to US$279 for the Zonbu Notebook, users will pay a US$14.95 monthly subscription fee that includes software upgrades, online storage, data backup, online tech support and hardware replacement in case of damage. Users can also buy the PC without paying subscription fees.

The notebook runs on a Via Technologies C7-M processor operating at 1.5GHz and weighs 5.3 pounds (2.4 kilograms). It has a 15.4-inch screen, 512M bytes of RAM, a 60G-byte hard drive, a DVD-RW/CD-RW drive, an integrated graphics controller and wired and wireless 802.11 b/g networking.

The notebook, which runs a customized version of the open-source Linux OS, comes preloaded with 20 software applications, including free applications already available on the Internet, like the Firefox Web browser and OpenOffice.org office suite.

It's targeted as a second computer for those tired of updating PCs, Zonbu said. The notebook is currently in "beta," according to Zonbu. The final version of the notebook with updated software will ship globally early next year.

Users can buy a month-to-month, one or two-year subscription plan with the notebook, all for US$14.95 per month. Maintenance fees will also take care of PC configuration, set up, data loss and security issues, Zonbu said. In case a notebook goes bad, a replacement notebook is shipped overnight, Zonbu said.

Although the laptop price is compelling, will the subscription model attract buyers?

Zonbu is reaching out to a market segment not addressed yet, a client bundled with applications and services installed and maintained by a vendor, said David Milman, CEO of computer maintenance firm Rescuecom. This subscription model differs from earlier models where users bought a cheap PC and were locked up in monthly Internet charges.

"You're going after a market that's wide open and hasn't been addressed yet," Milman said. Components prices are cheap, so it is possible for a vendor to build such a PC, he said.

However, the company could face challenges in maintaining a decent bottom line, Milman said. "Customers are buying the computer because of its price. If customers don't get the service for their price, they'll stop paying," Milman said.

Users could just take the PC and disappear without paying. "You're effectively buying a zero maintenance computer. There is no such thing as zero maintenance," Milman said.

Online support could pose problems for hardware as users prefer on-site support technicians, Milman said. With such a shoestring budget, shipment of a replacement PC itself could eat into Zonbu's profits, Milman said.

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