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.

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.