THE COMPUTER industry, which has always been a fertile source of ugly new words, has spawned a new monster - featurism.

Featurism means that products with relatively simple central functions are decked out with a baffling array of extras, usually to make them stand out against the competition. The British Association Science Festival at Southampton last month produced a remarkable example - VCRs with 105 buttons.

It is almost as though Mercedes Benz, famous for supplying fine cars bereft of extras, made a policy change and included a sun-roof, fog lamps and a trip computer in the purchase price of every vehicle. Almost, but not quite. There is every chance of a driver using those additional items; in the computer industry, however, there are doubts that many of the extras are likely to be used or even wanted. They are, however, paid for.

Featurism applies to various aspects of office technology: computers, programs, printers, even photocopiers. The result has been to keep unit costs at a stable level over several years, despite the tendency for the price of technology to fall.

There is little doubt that in some respects, the preoccupation with features has worked to the consumer's advantage. No one would argue that the type of system you could buy for pounds 3,000 today is not immeasurably superior to the basic PC and printer that the same sum would have bought 10 years ago.

Many of the features added in the intervening years - more power, greater speed and larger memory capacity, higher reliability, communications, colour - have enabled programmers to make PCs easier to use, so that the technology has become generally more accessible.

The downward trend in prices also means that less sophisticated technology can be bought much more cheaply. The descendants of the 1993 PC cost from pounds 350.

Furthermore, in the price index tables published by the Government's Central Statistical Office, only one single category of goods shows a decline in price over the past seven years: taking 1985 as 100, the price index of office machinery and data processing equipment was below 80 in May 1992.

The impact of featurism may perhaps be seen most clearly in the field of computer programs. As the capacity of computers has grown, programs have expanded in Parkinsonian fashion to fill the space.

WordPerfect UK's general manager, David Godwin, admits that perhaps no more than 10-15 per cent of the features of the company's widely-admired word processing program are likely to be exploited by the typical user. He points out, however, that WordPerfect has to provide for customers with far more extensive requirements than the average user.

Mike Gove, manager of the OS/2 User Group, representing users of advanced PCs, says of computer software in general: 'The overkill comes not in the extent of the functionality but very often in the way it is delivered. People haven't thought enough about the design of their software.'

In the photocopier field, Kodak commissioned research late last year into what the users of various manufacturers' copiers wanted from their machines. The results of the survey showed that features did not score highly; indeed, basic reliability and prompt support turned out to be the main priorities. More surprisingly, value for money was given only the third highest priority.

Perhaps office equipment users detect a relationship between features and value for money that differs from the picture the vendors try to promote.

(Photograph omitted)

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