Over the past few years, various folks have come up with simpler, cheaper alternatives to the office desktop PC. But the PC has beaten back all challenges by getting cheaper and, more important, being the devil corporate information-technology departments knew.
Despite the rise of alternatives such as information appliances, the PC is poised to remain dominant in businesses for a long time. It is doing so by becoming something simpler, smaller, more stylish, and a good deal less personal.
The Compaq iPAQ is a prototype of the new breed. The first thing you notice about it is a sleek industrial design and a footprint that's just 10 inches by 5 inches. But the design changes are far more than skin-deep and hardly summed up by the marketing hype that the iPAQ is an "Internet device." This computer was really designed from the ground up to live on a corporate network.
The iPAQ, which starts at about $500 without monitor, is designed for the mainstream office worker, not the home or power user. Either of the processor choices, the 500-MHz Celeron or a slightly more powerful 500-MHz Pentium III, is plenty fast for any ordinary business task. The hard drive, 4.3 or 8.4 gigabytes, is smallish by today's standards, but network machines need less local storage. The built-in speakers won't challenge your home stereo, but they're good enough for office use and save space and fuss. And the iPAQ is a sealed box, with no slots for add-in cards.
There are only two real options. By far the more interesting is a bay that accepts the same drives used on Compaq's Armada laptops. Current choices are a CD-ROM, DVD, or SuperDisk LS-120, which can also read and write 1.44-MB floppy disks. A recordable CD drive will probably be added soon. The second choice is between a version that uses only universal serial bus connectors to add accessories or a model that includes a serial and a printer port--aimed mostly at corporations that require these largely obsolete ports on their bid lists. The simplification yields a computer that is smaller and cheaper, boots up faster, and is less trouble-prone.
This design doesn't let workers change the configuration of their computers much, and the Windows 2000 operating system lets managers lock things down tighter. For example, users can be barred from installing any software. Since systems managers are more concerned with controlling costs than with employees' freedom to modify their computers, this is, for better or worse, the wave of the future.
I expect to see simplified PCs like the iPAQ come to dominate the corporate market, especially as companies move to Windows 2000 in coming months. Hewlett-Packard is about to ship its eVectra model, a less ambitious variation on the iPAQ theme. The eVectra comes with standard serial and parallel ports--though a locking arrangement can block access to them--and a fixed CD-ROM or DVD, but no floppy.
IBM has also announced plans to enter the field in late spring with its NetVista line, including a model that incorporates the computer into the base of a flat-panel display. Dell, which pioneered the simplified design with its WebPC for consumers, plans a corporate offering this fall.
SMALL FRY. While the iPAQ was designed primarily for the corporate market, Compaq has been a bit surprised that nearly half of the units are going to small and mid-size businesses, attracted to the simplicity, the low cost, and the sleek design. Compaq has added to the small-business appeal of the iPAQ by including software that can transfer the existing settings and preferences of a PC to a new computer, which greatly eases the job of upgrading.
In his book The Invisible Computer (MIT Press), Donald A. Norman argues that the radio only became a practical product for a mass audience when it evolved from a complicated configure-it-yourself device to an appliance with just a volume control and a tuning knob. With business PCs like the iPAQ and consumer products like the WebPC and the Apple iMac, it looks like that evolution has finally begun.
Steve Wildstrom's reviews and commentaries are a regular feature of Business Now, a weekly program on some ABC-TV affiliates. For a list of stations and times, go to www.businessweek.com/mediacenter/