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IBM renews its emphasis on PCs

Despite some past ambivalence about the PC marketplace, the computing heavyweight once again is firmly behind desktops and notebooks.

LAS VEGAS--Despite some past ambivalence about the PC market, IBM once again is firmly behind desktops and notebooks.

The computing giant has, for instance, released a number of software applications to make its PCs easier to use, such as the hard-drive recovery system Rapid Restore, and it is set to back up the technology with advertising and marketing plans that tout the advantage of going with IBM, especially in the growing laptop market.

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"I would like to see us do a better job of articulating the job we do on the machines," Deepak Advani, vice president of marketing for IBM's personal computing division, said during an interview at Comdex here Tuesday. One idea is to create tools for IT managers that tally how many times the specialized software IBM loads onto its machines comes into play "so they can see the volume of times it is used," he said.

The PC group will also work more closely with the financing, software and research arms of IBM, said Advani. A similar combination, he said, helped IBM come back in the late 1990s against Sun Microsystems.

"People at the time said, 'How will you compete against this juggernaut?'" he recalled.

Although IBM created the market for business PCs in the early 1980s, it's been riding over a rocky road for the past few years. The PC division lost nearly $1 billion in 1998, and analysts have periodically recommended that the company exit the business.

CEO Sam Palmisano has shown mixed feelings about the beige box. He's stated that IBM is solidly behind the PC, but has also asserted that technology replacement cycles are an artifact of the past.

IBM won't have an easy time of regaining its former PC market luster, said Roger Kay, an analyst with IDC. In the third quarter, the tech giant accounted for 5.3 percent of worldwide PC shipments, while Dell and Hewlett-Packard accounted for 15.3 percent and 15.1 percent, respectively.

In addition, Kay said, IBM shipped more notebooks than desktops. Although notebooks sell for higher prices than do desktop PCs, the latter still account for over 70 percent of overall PC sales. Even Apple Computer shipped more desktops than laptops, Kay noted.

Advani, who came to the PC group from IBM's Intel-based server group two months ago, noted that IBM does not participate in the consumer market, unlike Dell or HP. When that factor is subtracted from the totals, the market share numbers are closer.

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Overall, demand is improving, he said. "We are starting to see spending pick up worldwide."

IBM also has a long history when it comes to design and introducing technology. Over the next six months, it plans to extol the advantages of technologies such as Access Connections, a Wi-Fi function that sniffs out the best wireless connection in a given room.

Rapid Restore, meanwhile, preserves a mirror image of a user's application and key data on a partition below the hard drive. In the event of a virus attack or system error, a desktop image can be quickly replaced.

Additionally, IBM has been a big promoter of desktop security. Approximately 20 million ThinkPad notebooks have been shipped, and 6 million of these come with a security chip that encrypts data.