Like sands through the hourglass

Dell Computer Corp. offered a tantalizing look at a future product by, unveiling a black, hourglass-shaped PC designed to access the Internet. Code-named Webster, the new machine will debut sometime this fall, said Carl Everett, Dell senior vice-president.

Although the machine looks different from anything Dell currently offers, the Webster (not to be confused with the low-cost PC sold by Microworkz) is in fact a full-fledged PC.

“This is not an appliance,” Everett says, speaking at DirectConnect, the company’s first major user convention. The sleek box will be based on an Intel CPU, will run Windows, and will also contain a hard drive, Everett says. How much it will cost, how fast it will run, and its exact release date are still being kept quiet.

However, Everett does say the Webster will be the first Dell PC to provide the so-called relationship button feature. The button offers essentially a one-touch method of obtaining online technical support.

How would the feature actually work? Everett answered the question by demonstrating a scenario in which a customer’s PC pops up an alert of a virus attack. The user simply presses the relationship button, which brings up a form asking for an explanation of the problem. The user is then connected to a Dell support representative via the Internet. In this demonstration case, the technician quickly asked permission to run a series of diagnostic tests on the machine and then sent the user an updated version of an antivirus program, which fixed the problem. The relationship button will later be offered on other Dell products, including those at the high end, Dell officials say.

Although pricing for this e-support was not disclosed, Dell officials indicate that it will not be free. Future iterations of the support will contain automated scripts to fix common problems, they add.

E-support is clearly aimed at reducing Dell’s support costs. But company representatives emphasize that users will not be stopped from using standard, telephone-based support.

Whether the Webster will be a stand-alone product or the first of a whole new line of Dell PCs isn’t clear. However, it is clear that jazzy designs, something Dell has not been known for, are now high on the company agenda. Other priorities are apparently smaller form factors and a strong focus on the Internet.

“Our vision is to bring more products that are personalized by their size, style, and connectivity to the Internet,” Everett says. “For many buyers, megahertz doesn’t really matter. What counts is what the machine does for you on the Internet.”