Computer Industry Plans To Serve 'a Million Grannies'

The goal is to make the Internet much easier to access and use

ARE personal computers too complicated?

Yes! Even the chief executives of some computer companies think so. That's why they are drumming up support for a new kind of computing device.

This new device would probably be smaller and cheaper than today's personal computer, requiring no disks to store information and practically no software. It would emphasize communication over computation. Above all, it would be simple to use.

Today's PC ''is much too difficult - and I do this for a living!'' says Larry Ellison, chairman of Oracle Corp., a database and networking company in Redwood Shores, Calif. ''My mother will never use them.''

Adds Raymond Smith, chairman of Bell Atlantic Corp. in Arlington, Va.: ''We have seen a huge base of customers who don't need - who don't want - a computer in their homes.''

What do these users want? Access to the Internet, the global network of computers.

The Internet is such a hot topic at this week's COMDEX computer show here in Las Vegas that almost everyone is trying to hitch a star to it. Softwaremakers. Hardware manufacturers. All three keynote speakers at the show - IBM chairman Louis Gerstner, Microsoft chairman Bill Gates, and Novell chairman Robert Frankenberg - outlined ways in which their companies would make the Internet work better and shape the future.

''The Internet will change the world as we know it,'' Internet publisher Jeffrey Dearth told a packed conference audience here Wednesday. The title of the conference set the tone for the prevailing view at COMDEX: ''One Million Grannies on the Internet: Can the Internet Survive Mainstreaming?'' The speakers agreed the answer was yes.

Two big questions loom, however, over how quickly the Internet becomes mainstream. The first is choosing a device to connect to it. The computer industry is split. One side foresees cheap, simple-to-use viewers; the other sees the traditional PC as the gateway to the Internet.

The new device would mean users would never have to update their software, get a new operating system, or back up their data. The data and software would reside on the disks of large networked computers. But some computer users here raised concerns about the privacy and security of their data under this scheme.

The real answer could well be dictated by cost. Mr. Ellison of Oracle says his company has built a scaled-down computer that, in production, could sell for $500. Paul Otellini, a senior vice president at Intel Corp., argues that the final price of the product will be closer to $800 or $900 - levels that would compete with low-end but full-featured PCs.

The second challenge to widespread adoption of the Internet is the speed of the service. Modems - the gadgets that allow computers to communicate - are adequate to view today's Internet. But they won't be able to handle the video and intensive graphics that many envision will be carried by the future Internet.

So computer companies are anxious to promote new-generation telephone service, starting with Integrated Services Digital Network or ISDN, which would more than quadruple the speed of today's fastest modems. Bell Atlantic has started bundling an ISDN modem with an offer to purchase the service for $20 a month in its region. The company is also nearing an agreement with NYNEX and Pacific Bell to push the technology even further.

But getting ISDN service is another matter. Lee Vallone, a telecommunications specialist in Locust, N.J., helped three friends sign up for ISDN service. In each case, Bell Atlantic tacked on additional line charges that more than doubled the price.

''It's frustrating,'' says Ed Klingman, chairman of ISDN*tek, in San Gregorio, Calif. A year ago, the company was ready to market an ISDN modem. But the regional Bell companies did not push the technology aggressively enough, he adds. The result: His competitors caught up and offered ISDN modems of their own.

Up to now, fast-moving computer companies determined the pace of change.

Now, they're having to wait on other, slower industries, particularly telephone and cable-television systems, to deliver the underlying technology for future advances.

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