Wanted: A Pc For The Masses

Reliability and ease of use-not power and features-are the ticket at home

When last fall's sales are toted up, we're likely to find that just over a third of U.S. households now have computers. The computer industry fondly hopes that, someday soon, the PC will become as common as the microwave oven or the VCR. But to make that happen, the industry has got to roll up its sleeves.

Two factors keep computers out of many homes: cost and complexity. The first problem is rapidly taking care of itself, but removing the complexity requires rethinking the home computer.

What sort of machine would get PCs into the tens of millions of homes that don't have one yet? What's needed is much less a breakthrough in technology than a change in industry attitudes. Computers are a bit like cars in the 1920s: You no longer have to hire a mechanic to ride along with you, but you're still expected to get out and get under the hood once in a while. This has spawned a how-to book industry and--judging by my mail--lots of frustration even among the technically savvy.

COMPLEX BEASTS. The key to a true mass-market computer is its reliability and ease of use--not power and features. Even today's Apple Macintosh, let alone the typical Windows machine, won't do. For computers to become as ubiquitous as toasters, they have to be as easy to use.

And as reliable. That's why consumers need a crash-proof operating system, with crash-proof software to run on it. This may not be as hard as it sounds. Microsoft Corp.'s Windows NT and IBM's OS/2 both are very stable, partly because they do not have intricate routines designed to make them work with every piece of software ever written. Windows 95, while an improvement on its predecessor, still crashes distressingly often. And it presents users with too many ways to do things: Four different methods to move a file from a hard drive to a floppy adds confusion, not convenience.

In their present forms, Windows NT and OS/2 are complex beasts, not intended for novice home users. But their stripped-down technology could be the basis of the simple, bulletproof operating system for the mass-market computer.

The same design philosophy--simple and unbreakable--should apply to all the applications designed for these systems. While paying lip service to ease of use, software developers have engaged in a mad race to load on ever more features, layering them with "tips," "wizards," and "coaches" designed to unravel the mystery of their use. Some word processors even come with templates that provide all the text of a letter--you just add the address. But most people have little trouble writing their own letters; they need help using the software itself.

Software publishers insist that consumers want the latest and greatest and that simple just doesn't sell. "We tried selling mini word processors," says Chris Peters, who heads Microsoft's Office product unit. "They were spectacularly unsuccessful." But I don't think the concept of an easy-to-use word processor for home use has been given a fair trial.

This home machine should come with a carefully chosen set of simple, solid applications loaded and configured. No need to worry about compatibility with old hardware and software: People buying their first computers don't have any.

Having crash-proofed the software, why not get rid of that wait of several minutes every time the PC goes through its mysterious, failure-prone ritual of booting up? You don't boot up your juicer or even your video-game system, so who wants to wait on their PC?

IDLE MOMENTS. Fortunately, the remedial technology is at hand. I have a Hewlett-Packard OmniBook laptop that doesn't boot when I turn it on. Its secret: The power switch and a continuous trickle of electricity puts the computer into a deep sleep instead of turning it off, so that hitting the switch again causes it to wake up instantly with the screen just as I left it. Energy-saving technology already built into new computers could do most of the job--along with some rethinking of the power switch to make potential buyers feel at ease.

Manufacturers have already made strides in building user-friendly hardware. Such steps as color-coding cables simplify the job of setting up a PC. The much-talked-about $500 Internet machine could be just the ticket for Net surfers--assuming data connections into the home become faster, cheaper, and more reliable, and that the Net offers new content that appeals to people who don't now own PCs.

Sure, the resulting computers may be less powerful, as the industry measures such things, and would sacrifice the ability to work with nearly every peripheral and program ever designed. But making computers more user-friendly could make consumers more friendly to computers.

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