Looking for real value from PC buys? Think dumb

J.B. Miles

I cooked up a new heresy recently while searching vendor Web sites for product specifications and pricing for GCN buyers guides: The feds should dumb down their PCs.

I mean it. For many computing tasks, most federal workers, like most users everywhere, use their PCs for fairly simple tasks such as word processing, sending and receiving e-mail or surfing the Web. Systems with a fraction of the processing power of most desktop PCs would do nicely.

Even my own aging PCs are overbuilt for most of the work I do. Because I can't afford new computers very often, I try to soup up my old ones by adding PC cards, more RAM and faster processors every six months or so. It's the same urge that drove my father to rebuild his 1937 Ford every two years. The difference is, he did it because he enjoyed it. I do it because I have to. Or, I think I have to.

The power in most PCs and notebooks, including my own retrofitted boxes, is serious overkill. Many PCs today are complex, difficult to use and too expensive for the simple tasks of most users. So why do agencies spend gazillions of dollars buying fleets of high-end PCs, many of which will go unused by phobic employees and become obsolete in a year or two anyway?

Delete worries

Why should computer users face the choice every year of either buying new computers or adding to the ones they have? Do they really need the annual worry about installing new software, memorizing new menus and commands, organizing folders, downloading application programming interfaces, unzipping compressed files, replacing hard drives, changing PC Cards, configuring modems and engaging in the thousand other tasks that go into successful PC management and use? Wouldn't they be better off doing the work they were hired to do in the first place?

As for taxpayer dollars, think of the millions of hours saved if government information services personnel didn't have to tackle these jobs on behalf of workers who cannot or do not want to do the job.

There must be a better way, and there is. Internet appliances could take much of the pain and expense out of computing and could save millions of taxpayer dollars if used in more government organizations.

Like microwave ovens or refrigerators, these are limited-function devices built to do what they do best. They are usually equipped with a simplified operating system, built-in word processor and e-mail and Web browsing capability.

Because they perform limited chores, fast CPUs aren't required'a 200-MHz Pentium II processor will do. And they require as little as 32M of RAM and no hard drive because they use cheap flash memory. Displays can be small, dual-scan LCD panels. Most come with a 56-Kbps modem, a cordless keyboard, a printer port and one or two Universal Serial Bus ports for expansion.

As for price, we're talking under $200 in many cases.

The twin payoffs from using an Internet appliance are portability and dependability. You could take one on a business trip to check for e-mail from the office, move it from a desk to a kitchen counter to check on sports scores, or purchase a book online from your home.

The $99 i-opener from Netpliance Inc. of Austin, Texas, is a good example. It has a 200-MHz processor, 16M of flash ROM, 32M of RAM, a 56-Kbps modem, Web browser and a 10-inch LCD panel. It also has eight or nine shortcut icons for mail, news, weather, shopping and other options. Built-in speakers and a cordless PS/2 keyboard key come with the unit.

Expect a raft of other Internet appliances and purchasing incentives, some in the form of Web-enabled telephones and PC tablets, to hit the market soon. Even leading PC vendors such as Compaq Computer Corp., Gateway Inc. and Hewlett-Packard Co. are seriously considering the Internet appliance market.

Should Internet appliances be considered substitutes for 'real' PCs? No.

As limited-use devices, they are targeted at different audiences for different purposes. But I am not alone in believing they will eventually find their way into government and elsewhere as cost-effective communications devices for users who don't require full-fledged PCs for their work.

J.B. Miles of Pahoa, Hawaii, writes about communications and computers.


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