'DOS for Dummies' a smart move for publisher Guide makes computers accessible

June 06, 1993|By Steve Lohr | Steve Lohr,New York Times News Service

"DOS for Dummies," a how-to guide for using the software that runs most personal computers, seems to violate a time-honored tenet of business: Never insult the customer.

Several publishers rejected the book, and once it was published, leading bookstore chains initially declined to stock it. The first printing was a cautious 7,500 copies, and expectations were modest.

"I had doubts about it myself," recalled Patrick J. McGovern, chairman of the International Data Group, a big publisher of computer books and magazines, which in November 1991 took a chance on a title that dared to call its readers dummies.

Eighteen months later, "DOS for Dummies" has sold 1.3 million copies, a pace usually associated with big-name authors or provocative subjects, and no slowdown is in sight.

fTC More than a publishing phenomenon, "Dummies" is a sign of the times. Price wars have created a mass market for personal computers, yet they remain maddening machines, difficult to use and humbling to encounter -- and that's the empathic insight behind the success of "DOS for Dummies," an irreverent primer for the perplexed.

A personal computer, it seems, can make just about anyone feel like an idiot. And as the machines get faster, lighter and cheaper, computers are moving beyond the office into the home and onto the road, where men and women must face them alone. What is shaping up is one of humanity's most vexing confrontations with technology since a cave man first singed his hands on fire.

Culture, as well as technology, is to blame for computing's complexity. It still has the hallmarks of an industry dominated by technological elites.

To read a computer manual is to decipher the foreign language of the "C prompt," the "user interface" and the dreaded "disk error." The writers are apparently paid by the word.

Today's slender notebook computers are probably the only product category for which the operating manual is bigger than the product.

In the computer industry, every company claims these days to kneel before the altar of the customer. No computer executive seems able to string together three sentences without proclaiming his company "customer driven" or "customer focused."

Despite such talk, the computer business is still hooked on technology, pursuing the latest widgetry with abandon, convinced that customers will always follow. It is, after all, one of the few multibillion-dollar industries -- and perhaps the only legal one -- that routinely refers to its customers as "users."

Dan Gookin, 32, the author of "DOS for Dummies" and a self-confessed computer nerd, insists that personal computers are needlessly difficult to use. And he believes he knows why.

"The biggest problem is that there's still a lot of dorks in computing," Mr. Gookin said. "They're the kind of people who were in chess club in high school -- real bright but wound up in their self-centered little technical world, and they can't communicate with other people."

A harsh judgment, perhaps, but many computer executives acknowledge their shortcomings in dealing with lay people. The experts are also sympathetic to the troubles of computer neophytes, for they often have difficulties of their own with new machines.

As a result, many computer companies are beginning at last to try to make their wares less intimidating, inspired by the lodestone of the consumer mass market.

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