Computer companies are taking the first whack at the mythical machine of the information age, the all-in-one computer, stereo system, telephone and television. About $1,700 buys a machine that can display "Murphy Brown," send a fax, play Garth Brooks, answer a phone call and do all the normal work of a computer.
The question remaining: Do ordinary Americans want these hybrid creations? Companies are launching huge advertising campaigns to convince people the answer is yes.
Built by Compaq Computer Corp. and Apple Computer Inc., the machines are the boldest steps yet taken in a campaign to win over tens of millions of consumers who may be intimidated by PCs but who love their TVs, microwaves, coffeemakers and other home appliances.
Although futurists have talked about such machines for years, the technology is only now coming together at prices that make the products attractive. Major factors include cheaper and more powerful microprocessors, which can handle video, and advances in communications technology.
The ad campaigns being rolled out this fall depict these computers as the ultimate home appliances, as easy to use as anything in a suburban kitchen. By merging many separate electronic devices, the ads suggest, they save space and money.
"The PC is emerging as a digital chameleon, taking on all different shapes and forms," said Richard Zwetchkenbaum, director of computer research at International Data Corp., a market research firm. Manufacturers hope its new form will help it break into the 63 million American households that have no personal computers.
Nobody expects these new machines to replace the telephone in the kitchen or the big television in the living room. Rather, they are meant for rooms where combinations of equipment already occur - such as the bedroom or study. And analysts said the hybrid machines may evolve in other ways as well. For instance, the kitchen phone might acquire a small screen and the ability to get sports scores, the weather or kitchen recipes.
The telephone features are meant to be a particular lure for PC users wanting to navigate the so-called information highway, the name given to a variety of networks that transmit digital information. "It makes it easier to plug into the Internet and to send voice, data and images more easily between work sites," said Richard Buchanan, an analyst at Forrester Research in Cambridge, Mass.
Perhaps the splashiest of the all-in-one entrants this fall …