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Dell consumer PC shows focus on the Net

Dell Computer is expected to begin selling a stylized, easy-to-use consumer PC, and with it a whole new plan for reaching consumers.

Dell Computer today unveiled a stylized, easy-to-use consumer PC as the company steps up its plans for entering the hazy realm of Internet appliances.

The new computer, dubbed the WebPC, will come in product bundles ranging in price from $999 to $2,399. It's the first system to emerge from Dell's Web products group, dedicated to developing and marketing consumer products for accessing the Internet, according to Anthony Bonadero, director of product marketing. Sales begin today.

At its core, the WebPC is a standard personal computer enhanced with consumer-friendly features such as color-coded cables, simplified means of connecting mice and keyboards and a button that can connect users directly to a help desk, Bonadero said. It comes in a small, curvy case with a 433-MHz Intel Celeron processor, a matching 15-inch monitor, a free year's worth of Internet service and a Hewlett-Packard printer for $999.

At the other end of the spectrum, consumers can get a system with a 500-MHz Pentium III chip, free Internet service provider (ISP) access, a printer and a "flat-panel" monitor for $2,399. The system comes in a blue case. Users can also buy snap-on plastic keyboard and case covers that come in four different colors.

The Round Rock, Texas, company may be spot on, according to Dataquest consumer PC analyst Van Baker, who said the WebPC could appeal to those who prefer simplified buying options and easy-to-use features. "It's a nicely done product. I think it will have appeal," Baker told Reuters.

But Dell's bundling scheme may mask the company's recent parts shortage, Baker speculated. Dell has been hurt by a reduced market in memory chips and flat-panel screens.

The new PC is similar to announced but as-yet unreleased products from Compaq Computer and HP. As with Compaq's iPaq and HP's ePC, the WebPC eschews aging "legacy" technology such as ISA ports and built-in floppy drives. Instead, these new machines will depend on "plug and play" USB ports and optical drives, such as CD-ROMS. Unlike Compaq and HP, however, Dell will target its new PC at consumers rather than corporate users.

In the future, Dell's new group will begin to explore new product categories and technologies, such as "Web pads" and wireless communication devices, Bonadero said. John Medica, who was credited with turning Dell's notebook business around earlier this decade, heads up the group.

"We're looking at everything from Internet appliances to further iterations of this," Bonadero said. "Where Dell has been a conservative 'first follower,' we will be a leader in these new areas."

Some products will be manufactured by Dell, but others may be made by so-called third parties and branded as Dell systems. That's a change from the company's famous "build to order" manufacturing scheme.

The WebPC is smaller than standard Dell PCs, Bonadero said. The unit was code-named Webster because chief executive Michael Dell wanted a PC about the same size as a Webster's dictionary. The end result is larger, but not by much. Although future versions may get smaller, Dell will also work on making the current design more robust. Next year, for instance, Dell will likely add CD-RW, or recordable CD drives, as an option.

Unlike other Dell PCs, which can be custom configured, the WebPC will come in three configurations that will not vary, a historical break for Dell. Typically, Dell customers order extra memory on the phone and have the company install it. With the WebPC, customers will have to put in the extra memory themselves, said Bonadero.

"This is new," he said. "There are recommended configurations that you can't open."

Standard configurations, however, fit well with this market. Consumers drawn to this sort of PC are concerned more with functionality than technical specs, Bonadero asserted. SCI Systems, a large contract manufacturer, will assemble the devices for Dell.

Reuters contributed to this report.