SUMMER UPDATE: COST IS COOL BUT SOFTWARE IS HOT Price-cutting and innovation are major topics at PC Expo


NEW YORK -- PC Expo, the largest computer trade show on the East Coast, traditionally has been a forum for new business computers and software. But there was another hot topic of discussion among the thousands of people at the New York City show: the latest rounds of price cutting by computer makers.

Almost every major computer maker has, in the past few months, either cut prices sharply or announced plans to do so. The latest, discussed in this column last week, was Compaq Computer Corp.'s introduction of a family of computers with prices beginning well below $1,000.

In response, Dell Computer Corp. also pledged to introduce a line of low-cost computers.

Even IBM has been hinting that cheaper IBM computers are on the close horizon. When such PC powerhouses cut prices, everyone else will have to follow or risk losing sales.

The ramifications of this blood letting will be profound for computer companies themselves, for computer dealers and for their customers. The bottom line: Computer prices have never been lower, and they certainly will become cheaper in the months ahead, at least for basic systems.

While the focus of the industry is on price-cutting, PC Expo also was a showcase for innovative software. One theme that is emerging is smart software.

Smart, in the computer sense, means that some procedures are automated. A smart program is designed to detect common operations, then anticipate what the user wants to do next.

Aldus Corp., the company that is widely credited with starting the desktop publishing industry with its PageMaker program, is expected to announce tomorrow a new drawing program for Windows and Macintosh computers.

IntelliDraw 1.0, as the program is called, is a drawing package that is used for creating diagrams, technical drawings, business forms, graphs, organizational charts and other line-based drawings.

In the case of IntelliDraw, the smart aspects can be as simple as knowing that the user probably wants to draw a box or a circle, or as complex as being able to link parts of a diagram and have them move or rotate together.

"We use it up front, early in the model design," said Chipp Walters of Design Edge, an industrial design firm in Austin, Texas. The program has been useful, he said, in testing designs that are later refined using more advanced CAD (computer-aided design) programs.

As an example, Mr. Walters described the design of an artist's or engineer's adjustable desk lamp, the kind that has several flexible joints that are stabilized by springs and hinges.

Using IntelliDraw, he said, a designer can make a diagram of the lamp and then bend and rotate the components to see if there are design flaws. The software is smart enough to link the different components of the lamp so that they move in proper relationship to one another.

IntelliDraw also makes assumptions; if the designer has made two parallel lines and is starting to connect them, the software assumes that the user is drawing a box. The lines automatically snap to the proper end points.

"It tries to predict what you're going to do," Mr. Walters said, adding that the feature can be switched off if the software gets too smart for its own good.

IntelliDraw 1.0, which Aldus said will be available next month, has a suggested list price of $299 for the Microsoft Windows and Apple Macintosh versions. As might be expected, the software requires several megabytes of system memory and hard disk space. Be sure that your system is robust enough to handle it. Aldus can be reached at (206) 622-5500.

Another smart program displayed at PC Expo comes with one of my favorite hardware tools, the Turbo Mouse from Kensington Microware Ltd. of San Mateo, Calif.

Turbo Mouse 4.0, for the Apple Macintosh, is the latest version of the desktop trackball that replaces a standard mouse pointing device.

Version 4.0 comes with "brilliant cursor" software (that's Kensington's term) that can be trained to snap automatically to predefined spots on the screen.

For example, if you frequently go back and forth between the tool menu and the layout screen in Aldus PageMaker, all you have to do is start to move the cursor in the direction of the menu and the Turbo Mouse cursor will leap there automatically.

Several different "hot spots" can be defined for an application, which will eliminate a lot of cursor movement. Turbo Mouse 4.0 has a suggested list price of $169.95. Kensington can be reached at (800) 535-4242.

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