Gateway aiming to boost sales with PC skills class

Thursday, August 24th 2000, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

NEW YORK – Gateway Inc. is admitting publicly what most computer makers generally try to sweep under the rug: Using a computer can be pretty darned complicated.

On Thursday, it is launching an advertising campaign to drive home that point. And it has begun offering free clinics for PC users.

By year's end, Gateway aims to be the biggest non-vocational computer trainer in the country, chief executive Jeff Weitzen said.

"Technology is moving so quickly that a lot of the technology companies, really the industry as a whole, has forgotten a little about the user," he said.

"It's just become a dizzying and confusing maze of technology, and because of that, people just aren't trying it."

One Gateway TV spot features a living room with family members going about their daily lives while a PC sits dark and idle.

Mr. Weitzen says he wants to help people take advantage of all the capabilities of computers.

And if PC sales get a boost, he won't complain.

"We have so many 'unidimensional users' out there, who are only using ... [the computer] for e-mail, only using it for the Internet, and would like to be able to use it for other things," he said.

The San Diego-based company is in a unique position among the major computer manufacturers because it has its own network of 290 stores.

The stores and Gateway's kiosks in OfficeMax stores already provide free clinics that teach personal computer and Internet basics as well as digital photography and digital music.

The company also has 5,000 classroom seats in its stores for more experienced users. Those classes cost between $49 and $175.

Industry analyst Tim Bajarin noted that other computer manufacturers such as Compaq and IBM have tried to offer training but have been hobbled by the independent retailers who sell their products.

"When you have a dedicated store that's all Gateway, that makes it easier," Mr. Bajarin said.

The country's largest computer retailer, Dallas-based CompUSA, sells classes and provides free computer tutorials on its Web site, but they tend to be specific to software applications.

Mr. Weitzen said Gateway wants to focus on what consumers want to do, like digital photography, and teach them how to tie together the components they need, like cameras and printers.

Gateway is also sending out "technology ambassadors" to groups such as fraternal orders and bird-watching clubs.

Mr. Bajarin said the Gateway initiative looked like a "very attractive proposition for newbies" but won't solve the problem of consumer confusion.

"The better way would be to make PCs easier to use," he said.

"But in view of the fact that the PC industry has been very slow to respond to that issue – at least from a marketing standpoint and a practical standpoint – this is a very good idea."

Gateway's own consumer survey found that only 15 percent of PC owners believe that computers and technology products deliver on everything they promise.

Jolted by the success of Apple's all-in-one iMac computer in 1998, a number of companies have realized that customers want simpler computers.

They've responded by leaving out some hardware features that not all users need, like a printer port.

The next step is to strip down computers to the point where they are good for Internet access and not much else.

Compaq launched one such "Internet appliance" earlier this month, and Gateway is working on one together with America Online. It is expected to go on sale later this year.