Needs, Wants, and Fun Machines

SAN FRANCISCO (05/26/2000) - It's a simple formula: The more fun we have with our machines, the more fun we want them to be.

Let's not kid ourselves. We don't need a 1-GHz computer in our home offices to run a spreadsheet or do word processing. A 300-MHz PII can easily do those chores. No, we want a gigahertz machine because power equals fun. And fun is going to be the underlying motivation driving a lot of the new technology--and performance gains--that will be coming your way in the near future.

For years, business users chafed at the limitations of existing systems and demanded ever-higher performance. Now it's the home user who wants every ounce of power. Why? Because we do many more things on a home machine than we do at work, especially having fun. Sure, we want a capable computer so telecommuting is easier, but that's not why we rush out and buy the latest $300 video card.

We do it because we want to play 3D games where the bad guys look like they're breathing...until they get fragged. We want to edit digital photos, rip our own CDs, and stream in music from the Web--all at the same time and without ever crashing our machines. It's a simple formula: The more fun we have with our machines, the more fun we want them to be. That translates into insatiable demands for power, ease of use, and flexibility.

Home Network Junkie

Once upon a time I shuddered at the idea of setting up a home network. Who wouldn't? Back in the days when a home network was just a slick way of sharing a printer and an Internet connection, setting one up simply wasn't worth the hassle and money. But when I began to think of it as a work tool and a home entertainment system, I never looked back.

I started out simple: two machines and a printer. One of the machines is an old Pentium-200 that my kids call "Mom's computer." Back when I was a network nonbeliever, this machine was designated for my wife and kids to do word processing. It was a solid work machine to be sure, but dull.

Then I put it on a network and it became interesting. Now it's a way station to the Internet and a command post for my gaming opponents, lads of 12 and 16 years.

But once a home has a connected system, you start to get spoiled by it.

Everyone wanted high-end video, so I upgraded the video cards to 3D. Then everyone wanted a revved-up connection to the Internet. I needed it for work anyway, so we dumped the modems and got DSL. My stereo sits in the same room with my machine, so I decided to run a cable from the computer sound card to my preamp and put a pair of NHT SuperOne speakers on my desk. Lately, the kids have been complaining that Mom's machine is too "janky" to play Half-Life; no surprise, I'm thinking about upgrading to a more powerful box. And as soon as I can afford a wireless bridge (see our story on networking devices on page 66), I most definitely will link up my notebook. Next on the never-ending agenda:

DVD.

In a recent national survey by the Gartner Group, 30 percent of respondents said they'd consider setting up a home network if they could use it to share Internet connections and printers. That number jumped to 50 percent when they were told that they could also use it move big multimedia files around the house. In other words, as soon as the fun factor was added to the equation, the desire rose substantially.

Do we see a pattern here? The industry sure does. That's why there's an increasing buzz about making home networking easier, cheaper, and (eventually) wireless.

Entertainment Is King

At a recent symposium about the growing demand among home users for better technology, Gartner Group analyst Van Baker put it succinctly: "Entertainment is king...and Americans have again and again shown a willingness to spend money on it."

Back at work, it's a very different story.

When we're at the office, we aren't there to watch videos or play games or listen to MP3s. As a result, most business users simply don't need the kind of performance at work that they increasingly want at home.

Vendors know this and hope to make their profit margins with business buyers by selling less costly, less flexible computers more often. On machines like Compaq Computer Corp.'s IPaq and Hewlett-Packard Co.'s E-Vectra (dubbed "small form factor" computers) the vendors integrate networking, graphics, and sound capabilities on the motherboard. Stylishly designed, but stripped of expansion slots, these PCs retail for less than $800 without a monitor.

These nice-looking new machines are well suited for business and could be used at home, but they don't target the home market. The industry knows what you want there. A good time.

Ramon G. McLeod is executive editor for news at PC World.

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