Computers no longer for the few


WASHINGTON -- December will usher in a quiet milestone in American life: Some 52 million homes -- half of all U.S. households -- will have at least one personal computer.

Low prices and a desire to be linked to the Internet drove nearly 4 million buyers to purchase their first PCs in the first half of 1998, a newly released market survey by ZD Market Intelligence shows.

That torrid pace has held up, even ahead of the Christmas buying season, industry analysts report. It's likely that 1998 will see more than 8 million new PC users -- nearly double the 4.9 million first-time buyers in 1997.

A sea change also appears to be occurring among people of modest means. Currently, households with annual incomes of less than $30,000 make up a quarter of PC-equipped households. Yet they will account for a third of all new PC purchases this year.

To gauge a comparable potential impact on U.S. society, you'd have to go back two generations, when access to television became widespread. Go back two more generations -- to the World War I era -- and you could draw some parallels between what's happening now in cyberspace and what happened then with the automobile.

The critical tipping point in sales of new passenger cars came in 1917, when a record 1.75 million were sold. That raised the number of motor vehicles of all types on U.S. roads to more than 5 million.

For the first time, the administration of Woodrow Wilson took a serious look at national highway policy.

Back then, the industry giant was Ford Motor Co., comparable to the Intel chips and Microsoft programs now driving PC sales. In 1918, Ford's Model T had been in production for 10 years and the pioneering assembly line had been running for five years.

With $275 million in sales and $160 million in assets, Ford was then the 20th largest U.S. industrial corporation -- smaller than Singer, a maker of sewing machines, and one-fifteenth the size of U.S. Steel.

Company founder Henry Ford defined his management philosophy when he airily announced in 1909: "Any customer can have a car painted any color he wants, so long as it is black."

The Henry Ford of our day, Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates, uses a black laptop with a docking station. He unhooks it when he leaves the office in his black BMW and plugs it back in at his cozy mansion.

Even as the tipping point for PC use approaches, Mr. Gates and Ford share a characteristic persona. Beyond their incredible wealth, both men were powerfully entrenched innovators who pursued a one-man, star-system, idiosyncratic corporate management style. Such leaders come to be better known to the public than the corporate bureaucracies that they head.

In time, Mr. Gates' iconic standing might draw him to testify at the Microsoft antitrust trial. If that happens, a majority of Americans would be able to follow the results on the World Wide Web.

Andrew J. Glass is a Washington-based columnist for Cox Newspapers. His e-mail address is

Pub Date: 11/29/98

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