Computercol/19"/dt1st/mark2nd

By T.R. REID and BRIT HUME

This column made a lot of predictions in 1998. Many of them turned out to be wrong, as our loyal readers so thoughtfully remind us via e-mail every week. Amazingly, however, we got a couple of things right. Both involve trends that will continue to influence the personal computer world in 1999.

For starters, we predicted in this space that the return of Steven Jobs was going to be the tonic that Apple Computer needed to get back on its feet. For us Macophiles, it has been wonderful to watch that company regain the vision and excitement (and profitability) it used to have.

The new iMac, the turquoise-and-white box that has put Apple back in the black, has been a runaway success, for reasons captured in the two-word slogan Apple came up with to introduce the new machine: "Amazingly simple." This new computer is, indeed, pretty simple to use (although it still makes sense to read the book before you start messing around with it).

The key thing about the iMac is that it does not represent some great advance in technology. In fact, the basic design a single box, plus a keyboard and a mouse reminds us of some of the earliest personal computers, like the Tandy and the Apple II. But Apple figured out that this old-fashioned (well, it's 20 years old, which is positively archaic in the computer business) approach would appeal to users who just don't have the stomach for the spaghetti of color-coded cables and the stack of software disks that come with most new PCs.

We devoutly hope that other computer makers will take a hint from the iMac's success and steer their own expertise toward simplification. The plain fact is that personal computers remain far too hard to use.

The PC world has become badly split between the almighty techies people who can figure out computers, and therefore enjoy the complexity and the rest of us, who just want the darn thing to work without being forced to dig out a program called Regedit (whatever that is) and rewrite the Windows Registry (whatever that is).

We see this split whenever we admit in this space that we have some technical problem getting the computer to do what we want. These admissions draw floods of mail from readers, divided into two main streams. Some of you a minority, but a sizable one berate our stupidity. Most readers, though, tell us about similar problems they can't solve on their own PCs.

The real fault here is not with us users, but with the hardware and software producers who have created an industry of ridiculously complicated equipment. It's hard to think of any other machine in daily life that makes millions of us feel incompetent.

Speaking of software producers, that brings us to something else we managed to get right. We said from the beginning that the Justice Department's antitrust suit against Microsoft would turn out to be a waste of time and money, because the personal computer business is changing too quickly for antitrust law to keep up.

And look what happened. About three months into the trial, the company that nagged and pushed the Antitrust Division to file suit Netscape pulled the rug out from under its own case by announcing that it will merge with AOL. The marriage of the biggest online company and the biggest browser maker creates a giant that looks as threatening in the Internet world as Microsoft does in software. Just before Christmas, the trial judge announced that the merger so alters the landscape that Justice had better go back to the drawing board and reconsider the remedies it is seeking.

What we hope to see in 1999 is a private-sector remedy to Microsoft's dominance in the operating system market. Companies like Sun, Novell, and AOL-Netscape should stop whining to their Uncle Sam and start competing. If these firms would use their huge cash reserves to produce operating systems that can compete with Microsoft's Windows, everybody would benefit.

About a year ago, in fact, we forecast in this space that one of those companies would produce an anti-Windows operating system, and that this alternative would be a huge market hit. That was one of the many predictions we got wrong last year. It didn't happen but it should have. And so again, at the outset of '99, we call on the non-Microsoft share of the computer industry to forget the antitrust case and rely on the market.

The first person to produce a competing operating system that is simpler to use than Microsoft Windows (and it's hard to imagine one that could be harder to use) is going to reap a bonanza. Just ask Steve Jobs over at Apple.

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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