New-Computer Buyers Still Must Learn to'Click'

This week's PC show unveils industry that banks on price cuts, not simpler machines.

Bill Gates, perhaps the world's most famous computer user, used the stage here to introduce Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, one of the world's newest users. The retired basketball great was supposed to show off his new Internet site but had trouble maneuvering around the screen. After several awkward moments, Mr. Gates gently took the mouse and finished the demonstration.

"Sometimes, what's logical for you is not logical for me," explained Mr. Abdul-Jabbar.

"I think it's your logic that we should conform to," Gates answered.

It was a telling moment for a tool that many consider unfathomable. Some 15 years after personal computers burst onto the scene, many consumers complain the machines remain too complex and unfriendly. American homes without personal computers still outnumber those with PCs. And the immediate outlook for a simplified computer doesn't look good.

At this year's Comdex show here, for example, companies unveiled stripped-down machines, computers commanded by voice, and a range of new gadgets for doing simple things, such as accessing the Internet and looking at one's calendar. But no one announced a major initiative to simplify PCs themselves. This leaves the industry with one last hope to bring in the masses: price.

By offering powerful desktop machines costing less than $1,000 - about the price of a large-screen television set - the PC industry is beginning to convince skeptical consumers that they need a computer.

"I think [PC penetration of the home] is around 30 percent now, and it could double in two years," says James Bartlett, vice president of product marketing at IBM's consumer division.

THE move is great news for consumers. IBM recently joined the lineup of top-tier companies offering a sub-$1,000 computer. Mr. Bartlett expects competitors will begin offering $750 or even $600 models within two years.

Even at $1,000, first-time buyers are flocking to stores, says Andrew Watson, marketing vice president at Monorail Inc., a Marietta, Ga., manufacturer of low-cost PCs. About 40 percent of the company's customers are first-time computer buyers. But this doesn't mean they understand computers.

"We have a long way to go," Mr. Watson says. "We still have people calling up and asking how you use the 'footpad.' And the 'footpad' is the mouse."

Barely a blip on the screen a year ago, sub-$1,000 PCs have become a major part of the market. Through September, they represented 28 percent of all PC units sold in the United States this year, says PC Data, a Reston, Va., research firm. While the overall market has grown 32 percent from the same period a year ago, unit growth of PCs costing less than $1,000 has grown 333 percent.

It's not clear, however, how many of these buyers have never owned a PC and how many are computer veterans out to get a good deal.

Skeptical consumers can look to technology to gradually make computers easier to use, says Ellen Hancock, formerly an executive at IBM and Apple Computer. Her experience at Apple convinced her the machinery can be made simpler, she says.

"I think computers are going to become ridiculously easier to use," says Chris Spencer, president of Wizzard Software in Pittsburgh, which makes voice-enabled e-mail software. As computers begin to understand human language, they'll free users from relying on keyboards and computer mice to get their work done.

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