Santa, Forget the Computer

This year, it makes more sense to put WebTV under the tree.

By Dan Shafer
Published December 16, 1996 1:26PM (EST)

for the first time in the 15-plus years I've been in this business, I'm recommending to you  and to my friends  not to buy a personal computer this Christmas season unless you really can't wait a few months. The computer manufacturers have done themselves and you a tremendous disservice this season by announcing and then delaying several important new technologies that won't be available on computers that ship before the end of the year.

Don't get me wrong. The computer business is always busy obsoleting itself. In fact, that's the only way it can survive. Most of the time when people ask me, "Should I buy a computer now or wait until the next whizzy thing comes out?" I smile and suggest that they buy the computer now. There is a cost associated with waiting: economists refer to it as opportunity cost. It takes into account the things you don't do at all, or as well, while you wait for the technology to "settle down," which, of course, it never does. Years ago, Ralph Nader wrote about "planned obsolescence" in the automobile industry. The computer makers must have learned that lesson and taken it to amazingly new heights.
This Christmas, though, the story is different.

if you are contemplating putting a Windows machine under the Yule tree, you may be sorry much earlier than you would have been in recent holiday seasons. The primary reasons for your disappointment will become evident less than 60 days after you've tossed the last of the shiny wrapping paper into the recycling bin and finally gotten your CD-ROM drive to work with that snazzy new game that your nephew gave you.

First, there's the new MMX chip that will become a de facto standard on all the new Wintel machines manufactured starting in early 1997. By the end of the second quarter, they will be as ubiquitous as Pentium processor-based systems are today.

MMX is of primary interest if you're planning to use your new Windows system to run games or multimedia applications. But as the desktop yields to more multimedia influences, the question of whether you plan to use any separate multimedia applications may become moot; your system will be multimedia in nature and you'll want to have the best hardware
on which to run it.

In addition, Intel has further confused the issue by introducing MMX initially as a technology for enhancing the Pentium chip that won't work, initially at least, with the Pentium's more advanced big brother, the Pentium Pro. So you end up having to make a real Hobson's choice between a moderately fast Pentium with MMX and a screaming fast Pentium Pro that lacks the MMX power for the first six months or so of 1997.

Second, there's a hot new mass-storage technology called Digital Video Disk (DVD) looming on the horizon. Though this will initially be primarily available on Windows, it may well also affect Macintosh buyers by early 1997. DVD devices can mix and match audio, video and program content on a single platter that can store 17 gigabytes of stuff, roughly the equivalent of 27 of today's CD-ROMs. But without a speedy processor and MMX support, DVD devices are going to be less than useful to most of us. A tremendous amount of the new, exciting content released in the second half of 1997 and well into 1998 will require DVD capability. Hollywood, Multimedia Gulch and dozens of worldwide hardware manufacturers have signed up to support this new technology and its promise is enormous — even though it has taken longer to reach the shelves than originally expected. Buying a new machine that lacks a DVD in 12 to 18 months will be as unthinkable as it would be today to buy a system without a CD-ROM.

Even if you are sitting there now thinking you don't want or need these high-speed enhancements to your Windows World — that where you want to go today is quite attainable, thank you, with the 166MHz Pentium you saw yesterday for under $2,000 — you should reconsider. The inevitable result of the emergence of all this blazingly fast hardware in early 1997 will be to drive down the prices of today's speed demons even further. So at the very least you'll be money ahead if you wait until 6 to 10 weeks after Christmas '96 to buy that shiny new smart box.

That argument is also the compelling reason not to rush out and buy a Macintosh to stash under the tree, either. There is less likelihood of Macintosh obsolescence than there is with Wintel systems and always has been. But Apple has already indicated it will be shipping new systems in early 1997 that will run at speeds in the 180 to 200MHz range. It plans to offer these systems at approximately the same prices as today's 120 to 160MHz products — and you know what that will do to the prices of today's machines.

There is one Christmas computer gift this year that you should consider, though. WebTV is one of the most exciting new technology ideas to come down the pike in a long time: a small box that sits on top of your TV, hooks up to your phone line and feeds the Web onto your tube. If you are thinking of giving someone their first computer under this year's tree, think really hard about giving them WebTV instead. If you have a computer but you've longed to be able to experience the Web more conveniently than you can sitting in front of your computer screen in that straight-back chair, get this sucker!

Both Sony and Philips are offering WebTV boxes for sale for around $300 — all you need is a TV and an ordinary phone line. For an additional $70 or so, you can get an infrared keyboard (highly recommended) which will allow you to send e-mail from your TV more easily. Then you pay WebTV $20 a month for Internet service — pretty much the going rate today.

While there are certainly shortcomings in this debut release of the technology (screen designs of many Web sites don't lend themselves well to the browser limitations of WebTV, and some navigational design is a little difficult to get used to if you're an experienced user of a desktop machine), it is worth buying. Furthermore, it is almost self-correcting; when a new version of the browser or other software used in WebTV becomes available, you not only don't have to worry about downloading it, you don't even have to know about it. WebTV will automatically update your software when you log on to the Internet and it detects that you're not using the latest and greatest stuff. They've already delivered the first quarterly upgrade, which includes RealAudio capability.

I know several people who have bought these boxes for relatives who have shown nearly allergic and paranoiac resistance to computers. All report that those family members have become fascinated users of the Web and e-mail, the two most frequently demanded uses of the Internet. If the stores don't run out of these things before Christmas, I'll be one surprised techno-dude.

Next year, let's all go computer shopping together. It's going to be a lot of fun then!

Dan Shafer

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