MEANWHILE, PERSONAL COMPUTERS keep getting cheaper. That's the challenge now facing th PC industry - the sudden popularity of ultra-thrifty sub-$1,000 boxes. While there's hope that the cheapo models will make computing power available to segments of the population that previously couldn't afford them, there's also concern that some buyers of suprisingly capable boxes would otherwise be purchasing higher-priced models. All of that has been weighing on the PC stocks, not to mention Intel, for weeks. And now comes a new threat: the arrival of low-cost non-PC devices for connecting to the Internet.
The pioneer is WebTV, which as noted in the lst Plugged In column, has finally shown signs of gaining momentum aftea very slow start.
WebTV, however is only the beginning. That was one clear conclusion from the two-day Personal Technology Outlook conference, held last week at the San Francisco Airport Marrioutt, in Burlingame, California. Subtitled "The Internet and the Consumer," and sponsored by Technologic Partners, a New York firm run by former Wall Street Journal scribe Richard Shaffer, the conference featured presentations by more than 75 companies, most fledgling ventures focused on the Internet. At least a half-dozen of those are working on hooking to the Internet without a PC.
One conference exhibitor that seems destined to make some waves is iTV Corp., a San Mateo, California, firm developing an extremely low-cost box for surfing the Web and sending E-mail. Sometime next year, according to iTV President Gary Langford, the geeky former physicist who runs the company, both Sanyo and LG Electronics will introduce equipment based on chips designed by iTV, providing everything needed to connect your idiot box to the Internet, including a modem, keyboard and Web browser. The retail price: under $50. The device, according to Langford, is based on an iTV microprocessor which can be manufactured at a cost of comfortably less than $2 apiece. You read that right. A buck and change. Langford says several large catalogue retailers have been looking at the gizmo as a replacement for print catalogues. In short, they're considering sending the devices free to some regular customers, with their Web sites pre-designated as the start page, along with an opportunity for low-cost access.
Dataquest last week reported that 10.2% of U.S. households plan to purchase a personal computer in the next six months, noting that the figure has been increasing, a fact that, "supports strong near-term growth in the U.S. home-PC market." The biggest drivers for new PC sales: educational use and Internet access. Until now, most people haven't given much consideration to logging on from anyplace other than a personal computer. But if you could spend $40 instead of $900 - well, that should give consumers, Intel, Microsoft and PC makers something to think about.