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Simpler, cheaper: Meet the new PC

Compaq's iPaq is the first 'legacy-free' PC targeted toward business users. The era of the simplified personal computer has arrived

Compaq is starting to ship its "legacy-free" iPaq PC this week in a bold move to try to sell businesses on a simplified $499 (£309) computer.

Already, Compaq, Dell and Gateway sell legacy-free machines to consumers. But the iPaq is the first one aimed at the corporate market, and opinions vary as to which market will develop first for these machines.

The iPaq's arrival symbolises an important milestone in the evolution of the traditional beige-box PC that has filled corporate desktops and homes for two decades. With legacy-free design -- the abandoning of older computer technologies that add cost and complexity -- manufacturers hope to expand the market by giving corporate customers and consumers easier-to-maintain and easier-to-afford machines.

In short, PC makers see their new, stylish offerings as the future of the PC. The iPaq was designed over a period of only a few months to deliver a less complex, lower cost and more aesthetically pleasing PC to corporations.

Whether or not iPaq looks good is a matter of personal taste. But the PC -- and it's still a PC -- trims a lot of fat from the computer most consumers are familiar with.

It removes, for example, the ISA bus and introduces Universal Serial Bus (USB) ports for adding accessories such as a modem and printer. For consumers, the approach should result in PCs that are more appealing and easier to set up.

Another benefit: Getting rid of older technologies allows PC designers to rethink the box approach. Some legacy-free models look more like a pyramid or an old radio than a personal computer.

"When you get down to it, a PC is a desktop accessory. Why not make it look good?" said Mike Feibus, principal analyst at Mercury Research. "That's what the 'personal' is for."

Compaq expects iPaq models to contribute as much as 25 percent to its worldwide DeskPro corporate PC sales in 2000, said Jerry Meerkatz, vice president and general manager of Compaq's Desktop PC division. Compaq also offers a legacy-free PC Presario model for the home, called EZ 2000. It starts at $999.

Analysts predict iPaq PCs, or ones like it, could eventually constitute 80 percent of the PC market. With a powerful-enough processor, a decent amount of system memory, a large hard drive and expandability via USB, the machines should prove attractive.

But critics are not convinced the less-is-better approach is necessarily better. Naysayers argue that iPaq and other legacy-free machines don't deliver enough performance to satisfy everyone.

Gamers, for example, would appreciate the ability to add high-performance graphics cards, extra drives and large amounts of memory to a PC -- something you couldn't do with an iPaq and some other slimmed-down products.

The iPaq features a 500MHz Celeron chip, 64MB of RAM, a 4.3GB hard drive, a 24X CD-ROM drive and two USB ports. It uses Intel's 810E chip set, which includes an onboard graphics processing engine and 4MB of video memory. But for a hard-core gamer those specs are soft.

However, "for the other 85 percent of the market it's plenty good enough," Feibus said. "And even a rabid gamer would appreciate a USB keyboard."

Dell is also getting into the act -- but targeting home users, not corporate clients. Dell believes its corporate customers will be slow to warm to legacy-free PCs, in part because the corporate PC purchase cycle typically stretches over several years.

"Product transitions like this are not light-switch transitions," said Carl Everett, a senior vice president at Dell's PC Group. "Legacy PCs are not going to be replaced over two years by legacy-free PCs."

For consumers, the company offers WebPC, an Internet-oriented, legacy-free PC starting at $999.

While they might not agree on adoption rates, Dell and Compaq see eye to eye when it comes to Windows 2000. The forthcoming OS from Microsoft may accelerate the adoption of legacy-free hardware.

"The manageability attributes of legacy-free PCs (such as ease of expansion), coupled with Windows 2000, are very attractive," Everett said.

Both Compaq and Dell announced plans to begin taking orders on Windows 2000 PCs.

As part of its move to make PCs simpler, Compaq is working to create a number of easy-to-use devices under the iPaq brand to allow users to connect to the Internet.

"The whole notion of what iPaq represents is a family of Internet-access devices," Meerkatz said. "The upcoming versions of our handhelds and an iPaq portable ... all of that will be under the iPaq brand."

The company's Aero line of Windows CE handheld devices, for example, will be rebranded under the iPaq name.

An iPaq handheld now in development will combine Microsoft's next-generation PocketPC software, known by the code name Rapier, with wide-area wireless networking support. It should be introduced in April or May, company officials said.

Compaq is evaluating partnerships with manufacturers to build pager devices and cellular phones, company officials said. These products, if offered, would likely come as part of a complete offering aimed at helping connect company employees to the Internet as well as to data stored in their corporate network.

Dell, for its part, is paying attention to connectivity, size and style when it comes to PC design. "We're continuing to march down that path," Everett said.

That means smaller, more-stylish corporate PCs from Dell are in the offing.

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