We vaguely remember that some famous wag (Oscar Wilde? Groucho Marx?) declared on his deathbed that he had one major gripe about dying: He wouldn't be able to hear what everybody said about him at his funeral.

In a sense, the authors of this personal computer column have managed to pull off that seemingly impossible feat. A few weeks ago, we announced that our column was about to die. We've written it, with considerable pleasure, every week for more than 14 years. But the time has come to move on to other endeavors.

Brit Hume is busily engaged as Washington bureau chief of the Fox News Network. T.R. Reid remains a Washington Post correspondent and has just published a new book, "Confucius Lives Next Door," (Random House) a volume which, we might modestly point out, would make the perfect Mother's Day gift for your mom. Accordingly, the column you are reading is our final edition.

Parting is bittersweet, in the column business as well as everything else. One of the sweeter aspects in this case has been the flood of letters and e-mails from readers around the country since we announced the column's impending demise. Essentially, we got to see what you had to say about the column now that it's stopping, and you were extremely kind.

There were far too many messages for us to provide individual replies, and we refuse on principle to send out one of those horrendous spam form letters. So the only way to answer is to say right here: Thank you, loyal readers.

Looking back over 14-plus years of columns, we find many common threads. Innovation is one: in this space we happily greeted the advent of lower-case letters (the original generation of personal computers displayed only capitals), color monitors, BBS systems, hard disks, color printers, CD-ROM drives, DVD drives, digital cameras, the Internet, MP3, and many more great new ideas.

The most persistent, and delightful, trend of the PC business has been increasing value. All PC users love to complain about products and prices, but the fundamental truth is that personal computers have been getting faster, more powerful and cheaper for a decade and a half.

Ditto for printers, modems, scanners and most other hardware devices. There's no other consumer product that comes close to the PC's pattern of improved performance for less money.

The only time since we started writing this column that computer prices went up was in the mid-1980s, when some benighted soul in the Reagan administration decided that it would be a good idea to put import restrictions on computer memory chips from Japan. This brilliant stroke caused an instant jump in memory prices; the Japanese, Koreans, and other memory makers took in huge profits, while American consumers paid higher prices. Fortunately, sanity eventually prevailed and the protective tariffs were dropped.

But while prices have been dropping, complexity has not. The early PCs we were using when this column was born were fairly confusing. It took a lot of trial and error, and endless searching through the user's manual, to figure out how to do things.

Unfortunately, that remains true today. Personal computers are still much too hard to use. And nowadays, there's almost never a user's manual to help out. We have to rely on the skimpy guidance in the online Help files, because makers are too cheap to print a book of instructions.

If anything is going to stop the continued expansion of the personal computer industry, it is the complexity problem. Too many hardware and software products are designed in ways that nobody but a diehard techie could understand.

In his newest book, Bill Gates actually pokes fun at some of the incomprehensible error messages that pop up in Microsoft Windows from time to time. No offense, Bill, but we're not laughing. We can't figure out how to use the products you are selling us, and we don't consider that funny.

In recent years we've received thousands of messages from readers relating some mysterious problem with a computer that nobody seemed to be able to fix. Often, we couldn't find the solution either. That was frustrating, but at least we had the reassurance of knowing that others had encountered the same problems we kept running into.

Despite this gripe, the advent of the personal computer has been one of the great technological revolutions of our lifetime. We feel privileged that we had the opportunity to meet our readers each week and discuss this pervasive change. And we're doubly pleased that you fired back at us so often.

Writing the column has been fun, and corresponding with readers has been even more fun. But now we're moving on, and you are on your own with your PC. You'll do fine, too.

T.R. Reid is London bureau chief of the Washington Post. Brit Hume is managing editor of Fox News in Washington. You can reach them in care of the Washington Post Writers Group, 1150 15th St., Washington D.C. 20071-9200, or you can e-mail T.R. Reid at trreid@twp.com and Brit Hume at 72737.357@compuserve.com.

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