Forget faster PC -- just let it work right

April 23, 2001|By MIKE HIMOWITZ

With my younger son in the process of deciding where to go to school in the fall, we spent a couple of days last week on the campus of Williams College, a small liberal arts institution in the Berkshire hills of western Massachusetts that I attended during a period in history that our boys refer to as "The Middle Ages."

While my son was hanging out with students and checking out classes, my wife and I took the obligatory walking tour, which evoked the usual questions from parents about class size, social life, accessibility of professors, the pitfalls of co-ed bathrooms and of course, what kind of computers kids are bringing to campus.

Now this hardly qualifies as a scientific study of Gen-Y computing habits, but I found out later that Williams was ranked as the most "wired" college in the country by Yahoo! Internet Life magazine last year. So the answer turned out to be of more than passing interest.

Our tour guide, a senior headed for a job on Wall Street, said that during his four years, he'd noticed a trend toward modestly powered, lightweight laptops.

"When you look at what we do here, most of us use computers to write papers, check e-mail, browse the Web and download stuff from Napster," he said. "A lot of people realize that you don't need a Pentium IV to do that. They'd rather have laptops because they're more convenient."

While this is certainly sensible, it's an attitude that worries people at Intel Corp. and other hardware makers, who have made billions over two decades by pushing ever-more sophisticated computers onto the market.

Intel makes the Pentium and Celeron processors that power 77 percent of the desktop PCs sold today. Its main rival, Advanced Micro Devices, makes Pentium-compatible chips that account for another 17 percent. Although Intel still makes gobs of money, its profits were down 87 percent last quarter. Today the company is trying to sell its latest generation of 1.7 GHz Pentium IV processors into a market that doesn't need all that and might not pay for it.

This is a watershed in the history of PC technology. For many years, average computer users benefited from a steady stream of faster and more complex chips that enabled graphical user interfaces, improved spreadsheets and financial software, sophisticated word processors and desktop publishing, digital music and photography, Web browsing and high-speed network communications.

But what can the industry do for an encore? The cheapest home PCs on the market can already handle most of these chores without breathing hard. Most business PCs need even less horsepower to get by. So today's hot-shot computers are finding narrower and narrower audiences, such as hardcore game players and multimedia freaks. In fact, one reason hardware makers love digital video is that it's one of the few potentially popular applications that actually uses all the juice Silicon Valley can jam into a computer.

The day after we returned from our college trip, I broached the subject with Ralph Bond, director of consumer education for Intel, who was making the rounds in his dual role as technology cheerleader and gatherer of intelligence on what people actually think about the computers they're using.

An affable and astute fellow who co-authored an excellent beginner's book called "The PC Dads Guide to Becoming a Computer-Smart Parent," Bond sees his industry heading in two directions.

On one hand, Intel, IBM and other high-powered chip makers are taking aim at smaller devices, trying to bring more power to handheld computers, cell phones and similar gadgets.

On the other, they're trying to convince the public that it needs a high-powered computer to serve as what Bond calls the "center of a home digital universe" that includes less powerful PCs, Internet "appliances" and other gadgets. It's a bit like using a powerful PC the way minicomputers provided the horsepower for corporate word processors and financial software during the 1970s and 80s.

"What we're doing is not a mindless drag race of gigahertz; it's not just for gamers," he said. "What we're trying to determine is how can we expand and enlarge what this computing power is all about." This sounds a lot like a solution in search of a problem to me. In any case, it will be years before home networking technology is standardized, consistent and easy enough to use to determine whether Bond is right.

Meanwhile, Bond agrees, the average PC user is less interested in PCs that run faster than in PCs that work better. This is a complaint that virtually everyone who writes about technology hears every day - computers are too complex and hard to use, the software crashes too often and it's too hard to get tech support.

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