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MS leads way to totally consumer PCs

Microsoft erected a foundation for the integration of computers and consumer electronics today at its Windows Hardware Engineering Conference (WinHEC).

Microsoft erected a foundation for the integration of computers and consumer electronics today at its Windows Hardware Engineering Conference (WinHEC), potentially sparking an explosion of consumer computers from companies such as Compaq Computer, Texas Instruments, Sony, and Gateway 2000.

Microsoft's Simply Interactive PC initiative--outlined today by Chairman Bill Gates at the conference in San Jose, California--is a call for a new breed of PCs that can control or interact with all the different kinds of electronic devices in a household, said Bill Veghte, a group manager for Windows hardware at the Redmond, Washington-based company.

Compaq, Texas Instruments, and Sony have been talking about this new-fangled computer with varying degrees of detail for the past several months, but some of the specific technologies involved were outlined today, including:
--a 1394 port for plug-and-play hook-up of camcorders, VCRs, and 4.5GB DVD CD-ROM drives
--a Universal Serial Bus (USB) for easy hook up of office devices like scanners, input devices, and printers
--"On Now" technology to eliminate lengthy boot-up procedures so that turning on a PC is more like turning on any other electronic device
--enhanced audio to rival or surpass consumer devices like CD-ROM players
--an NTSC hook up to connect the PC to a large screen monitor or TV
--new "Device Bay" technology for easy plug-in and removal of data storage devices
--easy access to the Internet, including software Wizards or step-by-step helping applications that guide a user through the process of setting up an ISDN (Integrated Systems Digital Network) connection.

In Microsoft's vision, such a PC would come as a small "sealed case" box, a device that users wouldn't be able to open up to modify with add-on cards. Instead, users would be able to add new capabilities by hooking them up to external devices, the way that stereo components are mixed and matched now. Devices like VCRs, satellite dishes that deliver MPEG-2 video, or more traditional PC peripherals like scanners will configure themselves automatically when users plug them in.

The design is supposed to appeal to the average consumer who might be intimidated by today's PC designs, but analysts aren't so sure that the computer could be manufactured cheaply enough to be affordable by these customers.

"It would be nice to see an initiative that addresses the $750 or $1,000 PC market. There's a large part of the market that can't buy a $1,500 or $2,000 PC," said Nathan Brookwood, an analyst at the research firm Dataquest. Brookwood calculates that a computer like what Microsoft will describe Monday--complete with all the external devices such as large monitors, CD-ROM drives, and digital camcorders--will end up costing considerably more than $1,000.

He added that Microsoft's proposal will contrast with Oracle's push for the $500 Network Computer, a kind of stripped-down PC designed chiefly to give users Web access and email.

Related stories:
Sony preps OS for network appliances
Oracle gets NC religion
Compaq marries PCs, consumer devices