On the sofa with your favourite program

Computers want to be loved, and some are adopting cunning ploys in a bid to gain a place of favour in the family lounge. Jon Courtenay Grimwood reports

In 1986, Packard Bell predicted that within 10 years the personal computer would be just another home appliance. Judging by last month's launches of restyled, user-friendly home PCs from Olivetti, Packard Bell and Acer, manufacturers hope to make the prophecy come true.

Although Olivetti's Envision is the most radical in design, what all three ranges have in common is that they are styled to blend effortlessly with familiar and trusted household appliances such as the hi-fi, television and VCR. There is a good market-led reason for this. According to research from IDC, last year was the first time home computer sales equalled sales of office machines. This should be good news for manufacturers. However, a survey from Packard Bell found that although 43 per cent of women in households with computers were involved in the decision to buy, 35 per cent were reluctant to use the machines.

What was worse, far from being given pride of place like a new video or TV, the machines were hidden away in the study, spare room or a child's bedroom. Faced with resistance to the idea of computers as central to family life, manufacturers have begun to make new home computers as "un-computerlike" as possible, ditching the angular grey-box look in favour of softer-edged design that does not look completely out of place in the living-room.

Olivetti's Envision, launched in September at Live '95, could easily be an up-market, matt-black video machine and is the only one of the computers designed to work through a TV set, eliminating the need for a monitor (the picture quality suffers slightly, but an ordinary monitor is available).

Other Olivetti innovations include limiting the number of wires by offering an infrared keyboard, with thickened edges to allow it to be held like a car's steering wheel when no worktop is available; and a TV-like remote control that lets users access the system, run CDs, control the volume or freeze video sequences from anywhere in the room. Once set up and switched on, the machine can be left in standby mode just like a TV.

Packard Bell's new range may not have a wireless infrared keyboard, but it does have a remote control which, combined with preprogrammed sequences, reduces complex operations to a click of the button. The new range comes in two styles, both radically redesigned. Working on the basis that today's computer might make it as far as the living-room but is still likely to be shoved into some out-of-the-way corner, Packard Bell has produced a "wedge-shaped" computer to fit into awkward spaces. The other model is a slim-line desktop unit styled to look more like a CD player.

The Acer Aspire range - 11 models in two different colours - is less radical than the other two launches, but still has a "household appliance" look and feel. The range was announced at the beginning of September and machines will reach the UK in November.

However, there is more to user-friendliness than making computers look like videos or toasters. Windows 95 may be simplicity itself compared with the old days of Dos, but as far as the manufacturers are concerned it is still not simple enough. New machines feature a proprietary software interface. The Acer uses a cut-down "big button" version of Windows, while Olivetti and Packard Bell opt for the increasingly common virtual rooms, in which selecting an object starts the related software: choose a picture of hi-fi to start an audio CD, or click on a pen to start the word processor.

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