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Gateway aims to demystify PCs with new services

Operating on the theory that more people would buy computers if they weren't so scary, the company announces a $100 million campaign to demystify the PC.

Operating on the theory that more people would buy computers if they weren't so scary, Gateway today announced a $100 million campaign to demystify the PC.

The direct PC seller will offer free weekly clinics in its Gateway Country Stores and will host free "Ask a Tech" sessions. It also will send "Gateway Technology Ambassadors" to local events, such as Kiwanis Club meetings.

"It is clear that technology is advancing faster than people's ability to absorb it," Gateway CEO Jeff Weitzen said in a conference call with reporters, citing a telephone survey that found that more than two-thirds of computer owners feel they are not using the full potential of their PC. Nearly a third said they did not even know what that potential is.

The new program expands the training Gateway offers its customers to include services to non-customers and those with PCs from other makers. It fits with Gateway's "beyond-the-box" strategy, which is designed to create recurring revenue sources through services. Training is one of the six major areas of focus in the beyond-the-box strategy and is a focal point of sales.

While Weitzen stressed that the initiative isn't just about selling more computers, he said it should lead to higher sales across the company's business.

"Clearly we expect that we will sell more PCs, more training, more software, as people feel they have a place to learn," Weitzen said.

He said that the roughly 50 percent of U.S. households without a PC fall into two basic camps: those who can't afford a PC and those who are afraid of the technology.

"We've taken a number of steps in the past, through financing, to make the technology more available," he said, adding that the new program addresses the second concern.

Gateway said four clinics will start immediately at all 290 Gateway Country Stores as well as in the 250 Gateway outlets inside Office Max stores, with initial topics ranging from an introductory computer class that explains what a hard disk is to a specialized session for teachers.

The company has been testing both Spanish-language classes and offerings aimed at small businesses, executives said.

All stores will also begin adding the weekly Ask a Tech sessions in which people can meet with a technician to discuss problems with PCs from Gateway or other brands.

"This goes beyond our box, getting into other people's boxes," said Gateway spokesman Brad Williams. Gateway said in its recent earnings conference call that it is already getting 40 percent of sales from products such as Internet service provider accounts and printers.

Gateway said it will launch the Ambassadors program later this month in Boston, Phoenix, Miami and Dallas, with more cities to be added throughout the year.

The company said it expects to spend about $100 million during the next 18 months to build and enhance its existing classrooms, create the new courses, hire instructors, and market the program.