Plug And Play Is Only $50 Away
I have a lot of experience adding accessories to PCs, and I've gotten pretty good at it. Still, I approach each job with trepidation. The physical chore of installation is pretty simple--a couple of screws, a cable or two. But getting everything to work together is another story. Depressingly, this problem could be greatly eased at a cost of about $50 per computer, but the economics of corporate PC purchases get in the way.
A couple of weeks ago, I discussed the incompatibilities between multimedia applications and video systems that drive home-PC owners nuts (BW--Feb. 6). In the office, the culprit is more likely the demands put on your Windows or DOS computer by a local-area network.
TRIAL AND ERROR. A case in point was my recent test of an Okidata Doc-It combination laser printer-fax-scanner. When I set it up, I discovered that I could either use the Doc-It or log on to our network. It took a couple of hours of trial-and-error frustration before I could do both. This is a shame. The $1,500 Doc-It is a capable machine that would be an asset to many business users, but they may find it just too hard to install.
The nastiest configuration problems, like those besetting the Doc-It, involve networks and a type of interface called small computer system interface (SCSI) (pronounced "scuzzy") that's used with CD-ROM drives, scanners, and other devices requiring high-speed communications. The problem is a legacy of PC design, which has remained basically unchanged since IBM introduced the PC AT in 1984. All add-on devices demand computer resources--these are the things that show up as "IRQs" and "I/O addresses" in configuration menus--from a very limited pool. Two devices wanting the same resource behave like two 3-year-olds wanting the same toy.
Network and SCSI interfaces can sort out conflicting demands--as they do on the Macintosh. Connect an Ethernet cable, and your Mac is on the network. Plug in a scanner or a new disk drive, and you're ready to roll. In fact, you can hang up to seven devices on a single, built-in SCSI interface.
Don't hold your breath waiting for personal-computer makers to emulate Apple Computer Inc. Built-in networking and SCSI connections are found on some high-end PCs, especially those intended for use as network file servers. Hewlett-Packard Co.'s NetServer is an example. But it's a different story on most machines destined for the business desktop.
It turns out that it would add no more than about $25 to the retail price of a machine to add SCSI and another $25 to build in networking on your personal computer. But computer makers say even such a minuscule premium would leave them at a competitive disadvantage in the marketplace. "With a lot of corporate customers, it's not unusual for $25 to be the deciding factor," says Andrew Watson, Compaq Computer Corp.'s director of marketing for desktop products.
MYOPIC MISTAKE. This is shortsighted for big corporations, which probably spend many times that $50 solving problems for users, and tough on smaller businesses that lack in-house support.
Some help may be on the way. Watson expects at least built-in networking to become widespread in the next year or so, mainly because it's now cheaper for a buyer to get an interface built in rather than add on a networking card. But unless standard SCSI support is added, too, the struggle will continue.
A bigger assist would come if Microsoft's oft-delayed Windows 95, now scheduled to hit the market in August, lives up to its promise of plug-and-play installation of accessories. But so far, full plug-and-play compatibility has proven elusive.
This is one personal-computer problem that buyers, at least the big corporate ones, have the power to solve. Manufacturers will give customers what they want. But first, those customers have to ask.