Dell withdraws sleek consumer PC line

The company quietly kills its WebPC, a small, curved desktop computer that came with a blue case and an optional flat-panel screen.

Michael Kanellos Staff Writer, CNET News.com
Michael Kanellos is editor at large at CNET News.com, where he covers hardware, research and development, start-ups and the tech industry overseas.
Michael Kanellos
4 min read
Dell Computer has quietly discontinued its stylish WebPC line while announcing today a new push into the consumer market.

The Dimension 4100 series, a new line of PCs for home users, was unveiled today as Dell seeks new ways to close in on rivals Hewlett-Packard and Compaq Computer in the consumer market.

Other consumer plans have fallen short, however. As previously reported, Dell has quietly shelved WebPC, a small, curved desktop computer that came with a blue case and an optional flat-panel screen.

Sales representatives at Dell said the company stopped selling the computer in June. A search for references to the WebPC on Dell's Web site produces a page that states, "We have recently redesigned our site, and you have asked for a page that does not exist on Dell.com."

A Dell spokesman said the company is selling the remaining WebPCs through its factory store. Typically, the store is used to clear out refurbished PCs. Dell is no longer selling the computer on its Web site or advertising it.

Despite the demise of the WebPC, many of the technologies that were introduced with it will live on, the spokesman said. The E-support button, a largish button that connected people to a Dell help desk automatically, will remain. Servers and notebooks will incorporate this feature in the future, other Dell executives have said.

Color-coded wires that simplify hooking up PCs will also survive, the spokesman said.

The quiet demise of Dell's WebPC is a strong indication that the coming revolution in style and color in the PC world may have been a bit exaggerated. Apple Computer has enjoyed tremendous success with its iMac computer, and Sony saw its notebook business take flight after it released its slim Vaio 505 notebook.

Other companies, however, have largely seen their attempts at style fall flat. Last year, Gateway released the Astro, an all-in-one computer with a regular screen, and the Profile 1 and 2, with built-in flat-panel screens. The Profile 1 was discontinued, while the other two are not promoted nearly as heavily as Gateway's standard PCs.

Packard Bell also tried an all-in-one computer. The company has since gone under.

WebPC's end follows the similar fate of Compaq Computer's Presario 3500. Like Dell, Compaq quietly retired its sleek consumer PC. The magnetic blue PC featured an LCD display, flat speakers and slimline design. Compaq will continue to sell the Presario 3500, but only in Japan.

For IBM, which in June shipped the first NetVista PCs, the decease of Dell's sleek consumer model is ominous. The NetVista X40, also an all-one-in model but built around an expensive LCD display, leads IBM's effort to revitalize its beleaguered PC business.

"The jury's out on whether consumers will pay $2,000 for an all-in-one model with flat-panel display when they can get a nearly identical configuration with CRT (monitor) for about half that," said International Data Corp. analyst Roger Kay

The demise of the WebPC could also spell trouble for Hewlett-Packard's e-Vectra, as well as Compaq's newest Presarios. Although HP, Compaq and IBM differ in their approach to this market, they are generally aiming to bring the computers to both the consumer and corporate markets.

Intel and Advanced Micro Devices also have created prototypes of stylish PCs that do not contain older, "legacy" technology such as floppy drives. So far, these designs have mainly stayed in the lab.

Analysts have held varying opinions on the color and style revolution. Some have said bulky beige computers would fade out within a few years.

Others, however, maintain that consumers concentrate more on price than style. Because they are smaller, or involve different manufacturing processes, designer computers typically cost more to manufacture, Steve Baker, an analyst with PC Data, said last October. Hence, the boring PC is likely to stick around for a while.

"An all-in-one will always be more expensive than an equivalent desktop and monitor," Baker said.

Dell first showed off the WebPC last August at a company-sponsored convention. Then code-named the Webster, the WebPC was touted as the first stop down a path toward sleeker designs, senior vice president Carl Everett said at the time.

"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. Color cases would also be a major PC modification, Everett said.

The WebPC came out in November 1999. It was the first product to emerge from Dell's Web Products Group. John Medica, a Dell executive credited with helping turn around the company's notebook division in the 1990s, headed the group. He has since returned to the company's notebook division.

The system came in a blue case and was slightly larger than a shoe box. Dell also sold snap-on plastic keyboard and case covers that came in four different colors. Everett hypothesized last year that other colors would become available.

Although the WebPC has apparently gone the way of the Apple Newton, Dell isn't giving up on Internet appliances. The company has organized another group to focus on devices and Internet services, Stephen Godevais, vice president and general manager of small business and consumer products, said late last month.

As part of this effort, Dell announced it would come out with a home MP3 player and a series of new services with MSN. Other products will follow, Godevais said.