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Simplicity Should Be the Mantra

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This month, MTV announced a deal to start selling an $1,800 PC bearing its hip "M" logo. The machine is standard fare with a few extra goodies designed to lure 18-to-24-year-olds: a DVD drive, a TV and radio tuner, a drive for burning CDs and a fast Athlon processor.

So, what does MTV know about making computers? Not a thing. And that's the point.

Computer makers have tried to win the hearts and minds of buyers for 20 years by battling over every little technical improvement, from graphical interfaces to easy-open cases. Today, however, most computers are just like every other computer. They are practically as interchangeable as paper clips, bottled water or toilet paper.

That's why style has become the new battleground.

MTV probably won't sell enough to make Dell sweat. But the idea of creating designer computers marks a milestone of sorts for the PC. It underscores the degree to which computers are moving away from the office and toward the home, where style is king.

The fact that MTV makes a PC is another way of saying that the computer has assumed such a familiar place in the family that it is now worthy of personalization. It strikes at the heart of the human need to accessorize.

These computers herald a new era of hominess, but they also underscore the depressing reality that little progress has been made on what is arguably the most critical problem facing modern computing--complexity.

One of MTV's main goals is to pre-assemble a variety of computer components so that consumers don't have to fiddle with the gear themselves.

Gateway also has joined the bundling bandwagon. Last week, the struggling PC maker introduced a new "EverQuest" computer bundle, which packages the popular online role-playing game and a GeForce2 video card with a standard Pentium 4 computer.

The "EverQuest" bundle is a nice marketing coup for both Gateway and Sony Online Entertainment, the maker of "EverQuest." But why does Gateway think consumers will buy a special computer just because it has a video card and some software pre-installed?

Because it's true. Installation and configuration are the twin devils of computing, surpassed only by the messy demons of uninstallation and upgrade.

For as much as computer components have become a commodity, no one has yet figured out how to make them work together in a way that remotely resembles the ease of hooking up a stereo, an answering machine or even the dreaded VCR.

These new computers entirely miss the point. The real issue isn't style, but simplicity.

The fact is that most designer computers have passed quietly into history. Gateway discontinued its Blue's Clues computer a few years ago. The Barbie PC and the Hot Wheels PC, made by Patriot Computer, also are gone.

Few people even remember that supermodel Claudia Schiffer tried to sell a special-edition Palm Vx hand-held, whose main attribute was its aqua-colored case.

The only company that has made real progress in turning the computer into a home device is Apple. The company's new iMac, shaped like a large, articulated lamp, is a brave effort at breaking down the tyranny of the bland beige box and the oppression of having to install additional hardware and software.

Don't get me wrong. I'm all in favor of Arnold Schwarzenegger-branded computers with monitors shaped like Conan helmets, or Britney Spears computers that grunt and groan when you click.

But somewhere along the line, someone has to realize that winning the hearts and minds of home users has nothing to do with all this stuff. PC makers would do well to make their products more like toilet paper--cheap, simple to use and functional.


Ashley Dunn is an assistant technology editor at The Times. He can be reached at ashley.dunn

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