Home is where the mart is
However, there are two sides to the hype. The optimist says more than 20 per cent of homes now have a computer. The pessimist points out that 80 per cent haven't and, of those who have, few are putting the machines to intelligent use.
Every Christmas, hungry computer companies ply us with the latest multimedia, and now Internet, offerings. But how many people - and for people, read parents - really understand what they are buying in a crowded computer store, or really understand the hard sell? According to analysts, parents now feel that if they do not have a computer there is something lacking. But they are still pretty hazy about the benefits.
In the United States, recent data shows that 35 per cent of homes now have computers. But the rate of market growth has declined from more than 40 per cent in 1994 to 22 per cent in 1995, and is expected to fall to single figures this year.
So how can companies break into the home market? And how can parents buy a multimedia product for the family without encountering intimidatory techno-speak?
Martin Slagter, the man who built Dell Europe into a Pounds 750 million PC business, thinks he might have the answer. Dell's trade secret was to cut out the middleman - the computer merchants. The company sold direct to customers and concentrated on giving them what they wanted. Using a similar formula, Slagter has launched two "at home" selling companies he hopes will revolutionise the way families buy and use educational software and computers.
One company, Habitech, will supply PCs (Compaq Presidios) and the other, MacFriendly, will supply Macs. Both are staffed by agents who demonstrate and explain the technology in the comfort of the family's or agent's home.
"Buying a home computer is a complex affair for the majority of people, " says Martin Slagter. "The extreme pace of change in technology, the bewildering array of options and the jargon of the computer industry make it all too easy for home buyers to make wrong decisions. And these are expensive decisions. In this information age parents are not being delivered the information they need and that is the gap we feel we are filling."
Nevertheless Tim Clarke, who is responsible for Research Machines' Internet for Learning, thinks the home market will be a hard nut to crack if companies continue to believe parents don't buy because they don't understand the technology. "The prohibitive cost of equipment is the culprit, not merely ignorance," he maintains.
Since their low-key start last October, Habitech and MacFriendly have built a workforce of 200 who provide a customers' package, which includes competitive credit arrangements, delivery, installation, 12 months' telephone support and on-site service.
Business has been slow, but Martin Slagter says this is mainly due to company policy of not relying on expensive, aggressive advertising but on the school-gate whispers among parents to bring in business. He is not worried and points out that 50 per cent of people who are thinking of buying a computer tend to take counsel from colleagues or family members.
So how do the company's claims match up to delivery? Inviting Habitech to a home where words like CD-Rom and electronic mail are still entirely foreign should have had them on their mettle. And when put to the test, they were as good as their word.
Our first MacFriendly agent, Julian Bailey, spent more than the promised hour talking us through the finer points of Pounds 1,500-worth of Apple Performa 5200. Like all novices, we were impressed by the Performa's ease of use and got caught up with the exciting possibility of being able to surf the Net.
During the demonstration we nodded in all the right places. But as soon as Julian Bailey was out of the door, all plans to design and print colourful newsletters and posters were put on hold because the printer wouldn't work - mangled, no doubt, by a spate of relentless clicking on anything that dared to move across the computer screen.
However, one telephone call had another MacFriendly agent, Graham Radbrand, rushing to our aid. The printer was resuscitated and, after follow-up conversations, we were all using the computer unaided to send e-mail and faxes or use games and reference software like Millie's Math House and Grolier Encyclopedia.
Although our initial attempt to join the logged-on fraternity was more like wading than surfing, it was reassuring to know that back-up was only a phone call away.
In an attempt to increase the pace of business, Habitech and MacFriendly run a number of family technology nights within schools, where parents are invited to see, use and ask questions. For any schools or parents thinking of going on-line, these parties are appealing. Agents take the opportunity to extol the educational avantages of the Internet, pointing out that all machines bought under this scheme come equipped with everything they need to access it. All they will have to do is find an appropriate on-line provider, pay their money and get on with the networking.
"These parties will be showing products that families really want and are fascinated by," says Martin Slagter. "The retail experience is not the best way to sell a technology product. Parents feel exposed and nervous. They tend to wander into a store, glance at the machines on offer and then wander out. We are offering a service that provides machines with built-in modems for fax, electronic mail and the facilities families need to connect to the Internet. "
* Habitech and MacFriendly, 20 Water Lane, Richmond DW9 1TJTel: 0181 332 2521.