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PC makers aim for painless upgrades

Dell rolls out the ImageWatch warning program, which gives customers a heads-up on coming technology changes. Compaq is expected to follow suit.

Dell and Compaq are trying to outdo each other in a race to make technology changes as painless as possible for large customers.

Dell today is rolling out the ImageWatch program, a Web-based information service that will give customers a six- to 12-month warning on technology changes that can affect the systems they have bought from Dell. IT executives, as a result, will have months to prepare for, or at least schedule, driver changes, hardware advances or software upgrades.

Compaq is expected to roll out a similar program next week.

A customer, for instance, may contract to purchase 10,000 identical desktop computers to be delivered over a two-year period. In that time, a third-party vendor may discontinue a network card included in the standard desktop. ImageWatch will send a warning to customers, said a Dell spokesman.

In turn, the customer can chose whether to change the card for the PCs yet to be delivered and change software drivers, or load up on the product to be discontinued.

Taking the trauma out of technology upgrades is shaping up as one of the major issues for companies that service large customers.

Customers, according to a number of executives, are fed up with the hectic pace of upgrades. Intel last year announced that it had launched a program to develop chipsets that can be used over two generations of processors, a move which will cut down on the "qualifying," or pre-testing, process for big customers.

Compaq, meanwhile, has said that it will extend the life span of its Deskpro line. Ordinarily, Deskpros are refreshed every 12 months. The current line of Deskpros, however, is slated to last approximately 18 months.

"For the past three to five years, customers have said, 'minimize changes,' but they have not been more vocal about it than in the past 24 months," Michael Takemura, North American desktop marketing manager at Compaq, told CNET News.com earlier.

Rooted in the desire to help the customer, of course, is the mounting competition for large customers. Dell gets most of its sales to "enterprise" customers and seems to be showing a slowdown in sales because of technology saturation, according to Ashok Kumar, an analyst with Piper Jaffray.

"Their enterprise sales are slowing down dramatically," he said. "They are not losing customers. It is very hard for someone to displace Dell."

A number of Dell customers have already performed their Year 2000 upgrades, which could slow growth even more. To keep on the growth, Dell has "pulled in" sales to large organizations to prop up revenues in the previous quarter, Kumar said. Dell will announce earnings on February 16.

Feeding off build-to-order records
"Planning and managing technology changes and the associated costs is one of the biggest challenges facing our large customers," said Joe Marengi, senior vice president and general manager of Dell's Relationship group, in a prepared statement.

The ImageWatch program largely feeds off of Dell's build-to-order capabilities, said a spokesman. Dell maintains records on PCs shipped to customers. Whatever software and hardware components are incorporated into the factory are maintained in a record by Dell. ImageWatch warnings essentially track the information on the components that Dell knows of.

The program is free, but only available to large customers. To participate, however, customers must sign nondisclosure agreements.