Desk-computer market still lures new makers

It's the kind of statement that makes you do a double take. In the desktop computer business, says Ken Price of Compaq Computer Corporation, ''it's never too late for a newcomer.''

What? Even when a slew of computermakers have already short-circuited? Even when there are still over 225 companies making personal computers? Even when analysts are warning of a bit-blasting shakeout any day now?

It's never too late, Compaq's spokesman affirms, but ''it all depends on having the right approach.''

The right approach will be crucial to this summer's newcomers: American Telephone & Telegraph (AT&T) and International Telephone & Telegraph (ITT). About the only thing these two formidable companies and their 200-plus competitors can count on is that IBM will still be a leader. But everything else is subject to change. The business market for personal computers today, those in the industry say, is not the market of last year or even six months ago.

If AT&T is to be successful in its new venture, ''it will have to make it in corporate America,'' says Bill Meserve, a computer consultant at Arthur D. Little Inc. in Cambridge, Mass. No other market ''is large enough to have that big an impact on their revenues.'' And corporate America, Mr. Meserve further explains, is in the middle of reevaluating its computer buying process and priorities.

For instance, it wasn't long ago when performance was the thing corporate buyers wanted most out of a desktop computer. ''Speed, memory ... these were primarily at the top of their priority list,'' Meserve says. ''The people buying then were the innovators in companies, the technologists.'' Performance is still on the list, he says, but now it ranks No. 4 in importance, behind No. 3, service and support.

''The No. 1 item turns out to be comfort,'' he asserts. For the buyer, this means picking a vendor that involves the least risk of criticism from management. Specifically, that has meant choosing IBM, which in 1983 had 21 percent of the corporate market in microcomputers and in 1984 will likely have 28 percent, according to Arthur D. Little research.

Because IBM is the leader in personal computers, software writers follow it like fleas on a dog. And the fact that software ranks No. 2 on the corporate priority list makes the IBM comfort factor that much higher.

It's this shift in priorities that has pushed some business-computer makers, like Compaq, into the corporate limelight and others, like Texas Instruments, into the shadows.

At a time when IBM had its personal computers on allocation, Compaq was supplying the market with good-quality computers that were totally compatible with IBM. Timing was perfect; sales are still rocketing.

On the other hand, Texas Instruments found it had to steer away from the Fortune 1000 market. When TI first introduced its professional computer, ''our initial ads had a big company office atmosphere,'' says Todd Clayton, a marketing executive at the company.''We quickly found that our success was not in the big companies but the small companies.''

Why? Because ''it's heavily IBM in the big companies. I think that the IBM-installed base is a very, very powerful element,'' Mr. Clayton says.

It's the ''comfort'' of AT&T's name that gives it the potential for major market presence, analysts say. ''I don't think their timing is so bad,'' comments Aaron Goldberg, a computer analyst at International Data Corporation. ''They brought another big name to the market at a time when the market is in turmoil. AT&T is saying, 'If you don't like buying IBM, if it's too establishment, here's your alternative for a big company.' ''

AT&T's new personal computer is IBM-compatible, but it runs faster than the IBM PC. It has been criticized for not being daring enough in the technological sense - for being just another IBM clone. Some in the industry believe that AT&T's new desktop computer should have been based on UNIX, a much more powerful operating system from AT&T that is used in its higher tier of computers.

''Over the last several months the industry really hasn't innovated a lot,'' says Bill Murphy, marketing manager of Hewlett-Packard's personal computer group. ''I think the sophisticated corporate user really wants to move ahead, which is going to require breaking out of the technological treadmill,'' he says.

Apple Computer senses the same thing. It just started a major effort to sell to large corporations in April, and has tripled corporate account sales in the last six months. Deme Clainos, manager of direct sales at Apple, agrees that the Fortune 1000 want a ''safe'' company - but he doesn't think it has to be IBM.

Apple is working hard to infiltrate data processing and information systems departments in companies, and to prove to those department managers that the Apple Lisa and Macintosh are easier, better, and more reliable than the IBM. ''They fall in love with Apple and all of a sudden the 'safe' concept (of IBM) disappears,'' he says. Nevertheless, Apple still found it had to offer a product that allowed its computers to ''talk'' with IBM and Digital Equipment mainframe computers.

But AT&T executives say they can't ignore the IBM presence and the enormous amount of software available for the IBM. ''We just listened to what our customers told us they wanted,'' says Stuart Menscher, director of data systems marketing for AT&T Information Systems.

While AT&T promises a reliable, risk-free product, the promise means nothing unless those personal computers can find their way onto corporate desktops. That will be tough.

Over the next few months and into next year, buyers will begin to be more choosy. Right now, many corporations use a proliferation of computer brands. But , say analysts, corporations are beginning to centralize their computer buying process, pare down their approved list of vendors, and put more restrictions on buying. ''There is going to be a real, real scrunch,'' emphasizes Mr. Meserve at Arthur D. Little.

This means that, to be a success with the large corporate buyers, a company needs to have all the essential ingredients in order. It needs a high comfort score. But in the next few years it will need something else - the ability to link all its equipment together so that everything can run as a whole.

''The big trick coming up will be getting the things to talk together,'' says Mr. Goldberg. ''It's not that important now ... because users are just trying to get the personal computer population up to realistic levels. A network is something you can add later.''

IBM isn't expected to come out with a computer network - a system that enables small computers to share information with other small ones and with large mainframe computers - for two years. Meanwhile, a number of microcomputer-makers, such as Wang Laboratories and Digital, already provide networks. IBM competitors don't seem dismayed by the IBM network delay. ''It means an opportunity for Wang,'' says Ken Sullivan, a Wang marketing manager.

Mr. Sullivan, along with others in the industry, believes that corporations don't want individual, stand-alone personal computers but are interested in building ''a total office automation solution,'' to use the industry jargon. That's why Wang is not concerned about competing head to head with individual microcomputer-makers. ''We are interested in office automation, and we are the leader in that. That says that our priority is not slugging it out with any competitor in personal computers. Our priority is supplying systems to our accounts,'' he says.

It is the ability to tie it all together in one big communications package that can make AT&T a major computer competitor, says Mr. Menscher, the AT&T executive. It may prove easier said than done, of course. But in any event, the trend toward better communication between office equipment is there. ''The stand-alone computer is disappearing. In a year and a half, communications will have the No. 2 spot'' on the priority list, predicts Meserve.

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