What's a poor small-business person to do when it's time to buy computers? Big outfits such as Compaq Computer and IBM design machines for business use but sell them through dealers who show little interest in selling a handful of units. Direct-sales specialists such as Dell Computer and Gateway 2000 will set up a machine any way you want. But most people who run a business need more hand-holding than these companies provide.
So a segment of the computer industry is finally getting excited about these customers, who range from former executives running solo businesses at home to companies with a dozen or so employees. "It's a tremendous opportunity," says Sean Burke, director of Presario marketing at Compaq. "These people are in the stores all the time. All we have to do is provide information and solutions." But, Burke concedes, Compaq is only beginning to tailor products to the market, by offering for example, a scanner built into the keyboard and high-capacity removable-disk storage on some Presarios.
4PLUG-IN HEAVEN. Hewlett-Packard is somewhat further along. Instead of tweaking computers designed for the consumer market, HP is aiming part of its corporate Vectra line at small businesses. The aggressively priced Vectra 500 series gives performance but eschews multimedia bells and whistles. "There's no earth-shattering technology in these machines," says Kathleen Tandy, HP's small-business PC marketing manager.
Instead, the focus is on simplicity. Customers want to spend time tending their businesses, not setting up their computers, and they "need stuff to work real quickly," Tandy notes. The top-of-the-line MCx model I tested was very easy to open and service. I added several plug-in cards, including a network adapter, without the compatibility difficulties I've encountered in consumer multimedia machines.
Most corporate Vectras ship with no software other than an operating system. Meanwhile, the Pavilions that Hewlett-Packard markets to consumers come with big bundles of educational and entertainment software. The Vectra 500s strike a balance. Some models come with Microsoft Office, while others offer a mix of business software from Lotus Development, Claris, and others.
PHONE-FRIENDLY. The Vectras handle a small business' telephone chores well. The 28.8 kilobits per second fax/modem can handle voice calls and comes with its own audio system and headset for hands-free, private phone use. The HP Communications Center software provides a very good voice-mail system. Unfortunately, however, the program does not comply with Windows 95 standards, so you have to shut it down if you want to use the modem to connect to an online service or the Internet.
The Vectra 500s sell through regular HP business-oriented dealers, especially those who specialize in smaller customers. But the company is also moving into retail, including office-supply superstores such as Staples and the business-sales departments of CompUSA and other computer superstores. In addition to the service provided by dealers, telephone help is available from the Hewlett-Packard center that supports corporate customers.
With growth slowing in the industry's home and corporate sectors, computer makers are turning a hungry eye to small business. If manufacturers tailor PCs to this market, both they and their customers could come out ahead.