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Computer Makers Seek Ways to Court Technophobic Buyers : Trends: Don't know the difference between a modem and a megabyte? Don't care? Technology is finally catching up with PC illiterates.


Here's a quick quiz on home computers:

(a) What's the relationship between RAM and a memory chip?

(b) What's the difference between a printer port and a serial port?

(c) What does a modem have to do with Genie?

(Answers below)

These would be elementary questions to the techies who roam the aisles of Egghead Software stores for pleasure. But for the rest of us, they are traps, exposing our ignorance and reminding us there's a new world where we don't speak the language.

When the technology is sitting under our own roof, ignorance is particularly embarrassing. Yes, you have a computer at home, but no, you don't know the difference between a megabyte and a kilobyte. Furthermore, you don't want to.

Here's the latest word: You don't have to. After years of holding us hostage with DOS (disk operating system) jargon and cryptic hieroglyphics (such as C:/dir.exe/*reboot) the home computer is undergoing a dual transformation.

First, it's going to arrive in one piece instead of a bunch of boxes. You can plug it in, and it will go to work.

Then, it's going to be very handy once you turn it on.

"Most people know you can use a computer for basic tasks like word processing and organizing your family budget. What they don't know is that there are hundreds of other lifestyle applications in the new software," says Tina Rathbone, a San Diego computer writer specializing in home users.

Lifestyle is a theme starting to sound throughout the computer industry. After years of turning out personal computers designed by technicians for technicians, the industry is targeting the customers who've been saying, "Don't tell me about megabytes, just tell me what buttons to push."

Eckhard Pfeiffer calls it a revolution. He is president and CEO of Houston-based Compaq Computer Corp., which unveiled its Presario line of personal computers this fall with an advertising campaign aimed at computer users who hate computers.

The all-in-one Presario package includes computer, color monitor, answering machine, fax, modem and six pre-installed software programs. Compaq's nationwide advertising campaign, which includes a toll-free hot line with tips for PC users, promises that first-time users can have the computer "up and running" in less than 20 minutes.

The ads emphasize, "Here are some of the traditional computer things you won't be doing: Sweating your way through manuals and messing with cables. Memorizing weird commands and all the other stuff that makes you feel like the computer engineer you never wanted to be."

Speaking at a recent technology conference, Pfeiffer predicted the '90s will see the PC taking its place with color TV, cable and the VCR, as a standard consumer item.

"By the year 2000 it is forecast that over 75% of U.S. households will own PCs, up from the current 35%," he said, "and we expect this trend will be evident around the world."

Pfeiffer's optimism is widely shared.

"I think the future computer will be an inherent part of everyone's daily life," says Milt Herbert, senior vice president of the Interface group, based in Needham, Mass., which produces COMDEX, the world's largest computer trade show. "The physical computer, essentially, has become as simplified as a stereo system--you just plug it in," he says.

What appears to be a quantum leap has actually been a slow, logical evolution since the 1970s, Herbert says. "In the '70s, there were complicated codes . . . and you had to string them together to make the computer work. It was a very complicated science and appeared like hieroglyphics to most people."

Today, the cryptic language has disappeared. "You'll get a self-explaining screen and you point your pointer at it and hit the button and it works."

At the same time, he said, the range of software programs has become "so immense and so easy to use, it's beyond comprehension for people who haven't looked since the '70s."

Lots of people are looking. The 15th annual COMDEX show in Las Vegas, which began Monday and ends today, has filled two convention centers with 170,000 participants and 2,100 companies exhibiting new hardware and software. This year, for the first time, says Herbert, the major focus of the show is on the home market instead of businesses.

"This is the most significant year for home consumers," he said.

Industry representatives agree.

Microsoft, the world leader in software for personal computers, is targeting the novice home user in a big way, says Tony Audino, a director of marketing.

"This is a first. We've done a fair job of promoting software to the PC enthusiast--especially the very technical people--but now we're going down a level," he says. "People like that convenience--they don't want to mess with putting all the pieces together and loading the software."

He foresees a time when households will have a PC in every room, as prices continue to drop. "All the big discount warehouses and super computer stores have them lined up--they're going like gangbusters across the country."

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