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Simpler PCs to debut for the holidays

The easier-to-use PC, which has been just around the corner for the last several years, is poised to appear this fall.

PALM SPRINGS, California--The easier-to-use PC, which has been just around the corner for the last several years, will actually begin to appear this holiday season.

The proliferation of technologies such as faster connection ports, combined with design innovations, will be a milestone in the effort to make PC systems more user friendly, said executives at the Intel Developers Forum here. Both minimized cabling and reduced size are tipped as important changes.

Other breakthroughs, like better integration of audio recording and playback with the Windows operating system, will come later, said David Cole, vice president of the Consumer Windows division at Microsoft.

Hardware and software makers acknowledge they have a long way to go in simplifying the computing experience, but delivering systems that appear less daunting to consumers would be a first step. Apple Computer's success with its iMac seems to suggest that a less complicated system is more appealing to users with limited needs.

The elements of the "modernized" PCs coming this fall are captured, to a large degree, in a model called the Century City from AST Computer, a once-large company attempting a comeback.

The Century City, which uses the small "FlexATX" motherboard that will be inside many of the new PCs, stands approximately 11 inches high and is 5 inches wide. It contains two USB (universal serial bus) ports, two audio ports, a CD-ROM, no floppy drive, and in general looks like a shoebox that Gumby might own.

AST plans to configure the system with Intel's low-end Celeron chips, so it can hit the sub-$800 market. Another model will use Pentium III processors, said sources.

Heat from the components can be a problem on small PCs, but this AST computer has passed thermal tests with 600-MHz Pentium IIIs. The CD can also be swapped out for a DVD drive, although recordable CDs will come only in the future.

The USB ports are key, because the technology essentially replaces most of the external jacks on PCs and fuses them into one, thereby reducing the tension associated with plugging in digital cameras or printers, said Steve Whalley, the ease of use initiative manager at Intel. This jack fusion also helps reduce the size of PCs, which seems to make PCs less intimidating.

The less complicated it is, the more people like it
In focus groups, Intel has found that one of the more popular PCs with consumers are the "all-in-one" flat panel computers such as NEC's Z1, according to Whalley.

Why the popularity? "It's easy to get out of the box," he said. The integrated monitor also means "there are less things to connect. It is a less-intimidating experience."

In the future, USB and design may converge to help further reduce "cable clutter," he added. In one demonstration, Intel showed off USB peripherals that were modeled to fit snugly onto the back of a PC, sort of like a mother and child turtle, so that they connect directly without the use of cables.

Smallness also aids manufacturers, added Jim Sacherman, CEO of Palo Alto Products International, an industrial design firm that also manufactures products for clients. Palo Alto designed the Century City, and was one of the designers behind the Palm Pilot.

Smaller motherboards and PCs mean fewer material costs, which drive down manufacturing prices. In addition, 6,000 of these AST PCs can fit into a 40-foot transport container, far more than standard PCs. Palo Alto's assembly facility is in Thailand, so "shipping costs a lot," he said. "There are those fine points of cost."

Intelligent error recovery
Progress in simplifying software and connectivity is also coming, but actual timetables and milestones are a bit more nebulous.

Microsoft, for instance, will push efforts for "intelligent error recovery," and self-helping PCs that can "fix [problems] without ever notifying the user."

Future versions of Windows will also try to improve audio and video performance by more tightly integrating these capabilities into the OS. Microsoft is concentrating on improving music recording, but also the playing of ambient music as a background application. Ease-of-use aside, consumers can be expected to be bombarded with the latest and greatest in technology in the impulse-buying season.

DVi, or digital, monitors will likely be one of the products making waves. DVi technology essentially removes an analog bridge that currently exists in the connection between PCs and monitors. By making this a purely digital connection, resolution is improved, said marketing manager Jack Wang at Acer Peripherals.

DVi monitors will also cost less to manufacture in the long run because they contain less circuitry, said an Intel representative. Consumers, however, won't see the benefits initially. Some of the DVi flat panels coming out this year will cost upward of $3,000.

Child's play
Intel will also increasingly invade the home with networking equipment as well as games and other devices from its deal with Mattel.

On home networking, Intel will come out with a more powerful version of its Anypoint home networking unit as well as a wireless version later this year, said Mark Christensen, vice president and general manager of the Network Computer Group at the company.

For the kids, Mattel and Intel will release the "Intel Play Fun Fair," a collection PC-humanoid games that take video images of kids and mix them into games. In these games, an individual stands in the range of the video camera. The video camera films the person then implants his or her face, arms and/or legs onto a character in a game. The person them moves about--bending over to duck under obstacles or flapping arms to deflect pinballs--to negotiate the character through the game.

The fun fair will be available on the Web for $99 and next year will come to stores, said Guy Blair, an Intel representative.