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Dell to sell small, Net-centric PC

Chairman Michael Dell, in his keynote speech at the company's DirectConnect Conference, shows off the "Webster," a smallish computer dedicated largely to simplifying the computer experience for consumers.

AUSTIN, Texas--Not one to let the new wave in PC style pass it by, Dell Computer will release a small, sleek PC this fall that will be targeted at customers who want to get onto the Internet easily and cheaply.

Chairman Michael Dell, in his keynote speech at the company's DirectConnect Conference here, showed off the "Webster," a smallish computer dedicated largely to simplifying the computer experience for consumers.

The Webster will feature a variety of storage options, such as DVD or CD-ROM. Sources indicted earlier that some configurations would come with no external drives.

The look and function of the device clearly shows that Dell is paying attention to the latest trends in consumer purchasing. Consumers are paying close attention to the price tag, and have shown, through Apple's popular iMac, that they care about how their machines look.

The name "Webster" is actually just a code name, Dell said, but he affirmed that it will come out later in the year. Start-up PC company Microworkz recently marketed a "Webzter Jr." PC.

The Webster seems to resemble the small PCs most recently released by Gateway, but with a curved, rather than a squared, shape. The black prototype displayed by Dell, if anything, looked like the now-famous Krupps coffee grinder, one conference attendee noted. A large button in the front of the device turns it on.

Gateway this week introduced a diminutive desktop computer for corporate customers, designed to take up less room on a business user's desk. Dubbed the Gateway E-1400, the space-saving system arrives on the heels of other innovative designs from the company, including the Profile, a computer with integrated flat panel display. Other PC companies, including NEC, have released similar all-in-one designs, a trend widely attributed to the runaway popularity of the iMac.

The design conforms to that of Intel's "Easy PC," an effort to encourage the use of USB ports and get rid of the older ISA method of plugging devices into PCs.

Samples of stylized PCs that are coming to market later in the year will be featured at the Intel Developer's Forum next week in Palm Springs, California, Intel has said.

It is uncertain whether or not Dell will market the system with its recently launched Internet service. Other companies that have announced similar devices have said they will couple them with ISP service.

Dell executives also emphasized that the machine will be easier to use, especially when it comes to getting support. Under a new program, consumers will be able to link via the Internet to a help desk, which will then be able to download files and other information from the desktop to determine problems.

Dell reprentatives did not give the price of the new PC, saying it was still to be determined.

The Webster will be merely the first stop down a design path, said Carl Everett, senior vice president at Dell. Although megahertz and other performance considerations dominated PC purchase decisions, consumers now are mostly concerned with what PCs can do for them on the Net and on look-and-feel issues.

As a result, in the future, consumers and businesses will look at three factors: size, style, and connectivity, Everett said.

"There will be a smoother, smaller look to PCs in the future," he said. Among the changes: all-in-one systems with integrated LCD screens will start to get bigger next year, Everett said. Colors will also be a major PC modification.

The development of style also benefits Dell. With more interesting designs, and customizable colors, the company will be able to boast a selection that is close to, or equal, what is offered in retail stores.

Dell, however, won't likely go over the top ala Apple and start making computers with proprietary or highly novel industrial designs. Style for Dell will occur within the realm of what "is doable in the factory," he said.