Plug And Play Computer Gear? In Your Dreams

But the PC industry is determined to change that

At first, Sam Kimball was thrilled with the $4,000 Micron Technology Pentium PC he bought recently. The head of a Manhattan music-production company, Kimball hooked up a modem, tape backup drive, color scanner, and his two-year-old Hewlett-Packard color printer through a port on the scanner. The old printer went on the fritz, so Kimball shelled out $400 for a newer HP model.

That's when Kimball's nightmare started. The port that had worked fine before was incompatible with the new printer. He spent an extra $100 for a special cable and circuit card. Then came hours of wrestling with a variety of hardware "interrupt" conflicts--messages in computerese that indicate, for example, that the mouse is on the same setting as the scanner. Finally, he found another card that fit the bill. "I'm going through an experience that is driving me bananas, and I can't imagine what the less high-tech-oriented [consumer] would be doing at this point," he says.

Where do you want to go today? Notwithstanding Microsoft Corp.'s ad line--or which brand you buy--the truth is, it doesn't much matter: You'll end up in PC hell. Despite two decades of fast-paced technological development, the industry has yet to come up with a product that can truly be called simple to use. Last year's arrival of Microsoft's Windows 95 operating system--which brought the PC closer to Apple's Macintosh, long heralded as the ease-of-use champ--fell short of the mark. "These things are like untamed beasts, and we use them because we have no choice," says Paul Saffo, a director of the Institute for the Future.

Ease of use wasn't that high a priority so long as office machines dominated the industry. For the most part, computer companies in those days dealt with a gearhead who purchased all the tech equipment for a corporation, not ordinary consumers who want PCs to work like TVs. But with corporate demand slowing, PC makers realize their growth depends on reaching the nearly two-thirds of U.S. households that don't own a computer. Moreover, with new, consumer-savvy competitors such as Sony entering the market, PC executives revving up for the next holiday season finally have made simplicity a top priority. "People are only going to buy new computers if they're going to get better and easier to use," acknowledges Mal D. Ransom, Packard Bell NEC Inc.'s vice-president for marketing.

ERROR MESSAGE. How does the industry get from here to there? For a start, the newest PCs incorpmrate such conveniences as one-button access to online services. And manufacturers are starting to use the Internet to cut the workload of help desks by sniffing out potential problems or delivering the latest software. IBM is planning a World Wide Web site customers can tap into to determine whether they need a software update. If they do, the software will be downloaded automatically.

Meanwhile, PC and software companies, led by Microsoft, are devising a standard called the Simply Interactive PC, or SIPC, which they say will make next-generation machines more like consumer appliances. Microsoft hopes the effort will lead to friendlier devices that can help PC makers crack the mass market. The initiatives, which will be phased in during the next two to three years, include a concept called On Now: PCs that power up as quickly as a TV.

But the industry has a long way to go. "This technology is not as easy as it needs to be," says James A. Firestone, general manager of IBM's consumer division. For one thing, PC makers just can't resist jargon. Consider this puzzling message on a Windows 95 PC running America Online: "Manager: Error: Independent within independent. Ignoring." Errors still abound--indeed, not even the vaunted Macs are immune. Peter Trilling, a Manhattan video director, bought an Apple PowerBook that kept inexplicably turning on when he folded down its lid. It was exchanged for a unit that couldn't read any floppy disks.

The industry has largely ignored consumers such as Trilling. After the masses drop their $2,000 to $4,000 on a PC, they far too often find themselves spurned by manufacturers and retailers alike. Need help figuring out that complex software program? Be prepared to pay. Microsoft, for one, charges $15 to $35 per incident after 90 days for software support. And it's a good bet you will have trouble getting through. When he had a problem with his new PC, James Klein, owner of a Long Island, N.Y., cleaning business, couldn't reach a live voice at Gateway 2000 Inc.'s technical support center, even at 4 a.m.

That kind of disregard for the customer is finally starting to change. Spooked by return rates as high as 20%, PC executives have been pumping lots of money into better customer support. Dataquest Inc., a market-research firm in San Jose, Calif., estimates that tech-support centers will receive some 200 million calls in 1996, costing companies $4 billion. Since 1989, the ratio of support staff to total employees has gone from 1 in 12 to 1 in 6.

CHECKING IN. Better support isn't the only answer. Hardware vendors, such as IBM and Compaq Computer Corp., are considering direct-marketing approaches in which company representatives could periodically check in with PC owners after a sale. An IBM rep, armed with historic data from the help desk, might call or E-mail customers at the six-month mark to provide answers to frequently asked questions.

Manufacturers also are paying more attention to design. New PCs from Compaq and Packard Bell have buttons that provide shortcuts to the phone-answering device, audio CD, and other features that used to require maneuvering through layers of software. Big Blue is working on a model for customers who want to use their systems without straining their backs reaching under the desk to load software onto a minitower. IBM has taken the CD-ROM, power button, and floppy drive out of the tower and put it in a slim package under the monitor.

Even chip giant Intel Corp. wants to make personal computing a snap. The company is pushing an initiative called the Universal Serial Bus, or USB, a speedy pathway it claims will enable users to connect any number of peripherals with the same plug. Another standard, known as the IEEE 1394 serial bus or FireWire (an Apple trademark), aims to do much the same thing. The standards are meant to abolish the incompatibilities that haunt so-called Wintel PCs--those built around Intel chips and Windows software. Because no one company controls the design, Wintel PCs have evolved in a Balkanized manner, wherein anyone can come up with a product that may or may not work with any other.

Eventually, the Internet may emerge as the best tool for frustrated consumers, though at present figuring out where to go--and getting there quickly--can be a major hassle. An increasing number of companies are using the Web to cut down on support calls and improve response time, though this solution works well only for Net-savvy customers. Still, Microsoft fields about 800,000 queries a week in the service portion of its Web site, where consumers post questions, download software, and read technical articles. Hardware vendors are considering giving customers a free year of Internet access, along with one-button access to sites that might provide service and support.

WIZARDRY. For over a year now, such companies as IBM, HP, and Packard Bell have been able to tap into a customer's computer remotely, via modem. But tomorrow's computers may be smart enough to detect problems before they happen, automatically notifying the consumer, say, when the hard drive is about to crash. Compaq employs such technology with its network servers and plans to add the feature to consumer PCs in a year or two.

SystemSoft Corp. in Natick, Mass., plans to help PC makers cut down on technical support calls by 25% to 30%. The company will license "call avoidance" products that hardware makers will build into PCs to identify and resolve common problems. For example, when an application crashes, SystemWizard will automatically jump into action. If the sound isn't working, users can click on a picture of the speakers, then respond to questions to pinpoint the difficulty. If the machine can't fix itself, it would dial up a tech-support server or even call a live representative. AST Research Inc. and Digital Equipment Corp. have signed on so far.

If consumers have to call a technical help desk, the idea is to get them off the phone, pronto. Seattle-based Primus Communications is working on a remedy that would allow support engineers to gather solutions to technical problems as they happen and store them in a database. Since the same types of calls keep popping up, a quicker diagnosis will theoretically lead to less time on hold.

Such efforts by computer manufacturers are only a start. But it may at least be enough to help consumers out of PC hell and into limbo.

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