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IBM plans PCs with new look and feel

Early next year Big Blue will launch a new line of commercial PCs that are easier to manage and network than current computers. Some may come without Microsoft's Windows, sources say.

IBM is betting customers want more style and simplicity, joining its leading rivals in revising PC design.

Early next year, Big Blue will launch a new line of commercial PCs, code-named EON, that are easier to manage and network than current computers, according to sources close to the company.

Some of the models will include built-in, "flat panel" screens; gone will be the "legacy" connectors common on today's PCs, such as parallel and serial ports. More interestingly, some systems may come without Microsoft's ubiquitous Windows operating system.

The departures come as PC companies try to add a bit of dash, without much additional cost, to their products. Earlier today, HP announced the e-PC, an upcoming business PC in an small and attractive but completely sealed case. Later this week, Compaq Computer is slated to take the wraps off stylish new business systems. Dell has already previewed a modular PC code-named "Webster."

"The more the technology becomes the same, the more people will tend to stake out their territory in the soft areas," said Roger Kay, an analyst at International Data Corporation (IDC). "This goes back to Detroit and tail fins."

The new products could benefit all concerned. Users should enjoy added simplicity, because the redesigned systems will contain technologies such as USB that make it easier to plug in peripheral devices like printers. Connecting to the Net also promises to be simpler--a benefit for small business.

Further, the new machines will take up less desk space. By getting rid of older technology and relying on attached devices, systems will be much smaller than typical PCs.

Manufacturers will benefit chiefly by being able to build PCs with less raw materials.

On the edge
EON, which stands for "edge of the network," will usher in a new era of computing for Big Blue. EON PCs will inherit some design attributes from both the NetworkStation, its terminal product, and its popular ThinkPad notebook.

One new model will use an LCD display. The all-in-one product follows in the footsteps of Gateway's Profile PC and the Z1 from NEC, which already offer similar features.

Speaking generally, Big Blue will move away from boxy designs and dull beige. IBM also is planning to introduce sleeker ThinkPad models, following the success of the ultraportable 570 and new "i" series models with colored lids.

According to a source familiar with the project, "IBM will get rid of the legacy look and feel as well as the legacy configurations and develop and design new devices for the new environment."

"The more drama you get in the XYZ dimensions--making them very thin or very tall--the more aesthetic interest you create," commented Kay.

Another source described them as "e-business enabled." Besides offering simpler ways to attach PCs to networks or the Internet, IBM will introduce a number of "internetworking" features around new user interfaces.

Some of these will work without Windows. "It isn't that IBM wouldn't use Windows, but customers will decide which operating systems are important," the source said. "Looking into the future, all bets are off regarding Windows."

One feature, called e-Key, connects users to a corporate network or the Internet with one mouse click.

IBM plans to build more connectivity features in all its products, but ThinkPad users will be offered instant electronic technical support and access to a ThinkPad user community, among other enhancements.

"Think about turning on a ThinkPad and something different happens, such as connecting to an intuitive user interface built with connectivity in mind," said a source familiar with EON.

IBM will also bundle more e-business services, such as Internet connectivity and Web hosting, and push more bundles, like PCs, servers, and notebooks.

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