Acting on a number of consumer complaints, officials in the state attorney general's office say they are nearing an agreement with computer makers to eliminate advertising practices that allegedly confuse consumers about the size of computer screens.
The controversy centers on the discrepancy that often exists between the stated size of a computer monitor and the actual viewing area. Because a narrow band around the sides of the monitor screen generally carries no picture, what is advertised as, say, a 17-inch monitor often has a viewing area closer to 15 inches.
The issue has drawn scrutiny from prosecutors and consumer advocates around the state. Last March, the Merced County district attorney sued a number of computer vendors for allegedly deceptive advertising.
Last week, pressure on computer manufacturers intensified as two computer buyers filed lawsuits in Orange County alleging that Irvine-based AST Research, Compaq, Packard Bell and numerous other manufacturers have consistently advertised screen measurements that inflate the size by as much as 33%.
Bowing to consumer complaints, some computer makers have already begun providing two measurements for monitors. IBM, for example, places stickers on its machines explaining that 20-inch monitors actually have 18.4 inches of viewable area. But so far, only a handful of manufacturers have taken similar steps, according to attorneys and industry sources.
Retailers say they are familiar with the way manufacturers measure screens, but they say many consumers are not.
"It's pretty confusing to a lot of people," said the manager at one Orange County CompUSA store. "There are complaints that come back about the size of the monitors."
The practice appears to violate the spirit, if not the letter, of a 1966 Federal Trade Commission rule aimed at the television industry. That rule requires the advertised size of television screens to refer only to the actual viewable picture area.
Michael Bloom, an FTC attorney, said the television rule technically does not apply to computer monitors, but he added that he sympathizes with consumers.
"I think a fair reading of the television rule is that if you're marketing a display device . . . you tell consumers what the usable size is," he said. "If I were buying a computer, I would want to know the actual usable area of the monitor."
Bloom said the FTC has looked into the matter, but he declined to say whether the agency is planning to take action.
Meanwhile, officials in the California attorney general's office say they are close to striking an agreement under which computer manufacturers would use measurements that are more meaningful to consumers.
Attorneys in the Orange County cases say they are aware of the attorney general's efforts, but that the state is unlikely to seek compensation for consumers. "The plaintiffs are entitled to damages," said Stephen White, a Sacramento attorney representing several Orange County companies in a suit filed Aug. 21.
The two Orange County suits seek unspecified damages, as well as class-action status. Conceivably, that could mean nearly every computer owner in California would have a stake in the outcome of the suits, attorneys said.
AST and several other computer manufacturers declined to comment on the suits.
One of the suits was filed by Randy Davis, a Huntington Beach psychologist. Davis bought what had been advertised as a 14-inch computer monitor in November, 1993. But when he got it home, the suit alleges, Davis measured the screen and found that the usable portion was only about 12.6 inches.
Davis was not available for comment, but his attorney, Louis Marlin, said the suit centers on a basic issue of fairness. "If consumers . . . are getting 25% or 30% less product than they paid for, they have been misled, and they're entitled to compensation for that," said Marlin, an Orange-based attorney who said he took the case on a contingency basis.
Fair compensation could be as much as $400 for every screen purchased, said Marlin, who added he would also seek punitive damages against computer makers.
Computer manufacturers commonly list sizes of glass screens based on measurements taken before monitors are assembled, the suits contend. That means advertised measurements include portions of the screen that are hidden behind a plastic cabinet, plus a thin border on the screen that is visible, but carries no picture.