Dell's future vision: A PC in every room

They'll all be connected and will have broadband Net access, too. Oh, and Dell plans to make house calls to set them up.

Dell Computer thinks the home will not only be networked but will offer broadband access, and it plans to help consumers step into this new world.

That's the gist of Dell's announcement of Dell4me Wednesday. Dell4me is the company's initiative to become, in effect, a consumer systems integrator, handling its customers' PC hardware and services. Dell has focused its initiative on several PCs, including a new, musically inclined Dimension desktop and the new Inspiron 3700 notebook.

One of the first Dell4me services will be broadband Internet access via a cable modem service. Dell will partner with Excite@Home's @Home Network to provide the cable service. Customers buying a new PC will be able to purchase a $49 (£30) cable modem, which will be installed in the factory. Dell will then coordinate a no-cost home visit where a technician will hook up the modem and the service.

Currently, cable modems sit outside PCs and connect to them through an Ethernet networking card. But the next generation of cable modems will be small enough to fit inside a PC, and Dell plans to pre-install them when they become available. "Customers are going to call us and we'll take care of everything," said Stephan Godevais, a Dell vice president.

The cable modem service, available now, will cost about $40 per month and will be available with Dell Dimension PCs and Inspiron notebooks, he said. Current Dell customers who wish to sign up for the broadband service may be able to do so, provided it is available in their area. Those customers should call Dell to find out more information, company officials said.

Pre-installing broadband modems isn't new for Dell, which also offers DSL (digital subscriber line) modems in some of its PCs. It's not a new thing for the competition, either. Recently, IBM began pre-installing ADSL modems in its Aptiva desktops. It also inked a deal with Pacific Bell to offer free setup for the access, though that was a limited time offer available only in the San Francisco Bay Area. Dell's deal gives users access to the @Home Network, which has partnerships with 16 cable companies in 27 states. That gives it and Dell enough reach to cover up to 70 percent of the US population, Godevais said.

Dell is making the move because it believes that broadband will serve as the catalyst for a huge change in home computing. "In the next year or two, there is going to be one desktop in every room," Godevais said.

For the "computer in every room" scenario to make sense, networking is necessary -- and it has to be easy. Later in the week, Dell will announce support for the HPNA 2.0, the latest version of the Home Phoneline Networking Alliance standard, aimed at delivering low-cost, high-speed networking over the phone lines that exist in a household.

HPNA's members include 3Com, Advanced Micro Devices, Intel, Hewlett-Packard, IBM and Compaq Computer along with Lucent Technologies, Rockwell Semiconductor Systems and Tut Systems, among others.

Dell will work with 3Com to deploy HPNA 2.0 in customers' homes, allowing multiple computers to share a single Internet access account (possibly the @Home Network broadband), share files and share printers. Dell said it will make the installation easy by providing training videos and CD-ROMs. Dell will also set up customers' home networks for $150, Godevais said.

But over the next two to three years Dell sees an even greater shift in home computing, with a move to computing appliances, which connect to a PC or central home server. So home networks with broadband connections may mean that "you can watch the Super Bowl and do your Excel spreadsheet at the same time," Godevais said. Dell is not alone, here, either. Compaq is developing a home appliance server, which will likely come to market early next year.

With the broadband connection firmly planted in the home, Dell thinks that people really will use a PC to edit a video and then email it off to grandma. And, despite the shift to new types of devices, Dell still sees PCs playing a role in the home, as entertainment centres.

As evidence, Dell's Music PC Dimension models will include MusicMatch Jukebox 4.0, an MP3 music management software program, along with a Diamond Multimedia's RIO 500 portable MP3 player and premium audio speakers. They will start at $1664.

The company is looking into other similar bundles, which would deliver a personal digital assistant and, possibly later, appliance devices in the same box with a new PC. However, "We don't have plans to make our own PDAs," Godevais said.

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