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Dell Computers Seeks A New Look

Dell Computer Corp. wants its customers to get a unique view from its Windows. So do Gateway and Packard Bell-NEC.

The computer makers are pressing Microsoft Corp. to customize its industry-dominating Windows operating system so that the personal computers they sell will stand apart from each other.

Microsoft supplies the Windows software that runs 90 percent of the world's personal computers. Most PCs look and operate pretty much the same, giving computer makers little to compete on other than price.

But recently, profits at Compaq, IBM and other major PC makers have been hammered by a price war that, while a boon to buyers, has driven home the need for manufacturers to find another way to distinguish products.

Dell is the only major computer company not to be hit hard by the price war because it, uniquely among PC makers, sells its products directly to buyers. By cutting out the middleman, Dell has not been forced to shave prices as sharply.

Still, Dell's chief executive said Monday his company initiated talks with Microsoft about custom-designing its computers because it sees big benefits to buyers of machines that are more closely tailored to their needs.

"We see opportunities to enhance the user experience," Michael Dell said. He said the company wants to customize the way computers look and interact with users "and we will take our own initiative to do so."

He wouldn't give more specifics on the changes his company is seeking.

The negotiations by Dell, the nation's second-largest maker of personal computers, come after rivals Gateway Inc. and Packard Bell-NEC recently touted more custom-tailored PCs.

Last month Gateway, the nation's fourth-largest PC maker, said it won an agreement from Microsoft to customize the screen people see when they turn on their PCs. Gateway said it would promote its own Internet-access service on desktop screens and make it easier for users to choose an Internet browser other than Microsoft's.

Last week, Packard Bell-NEC, another large maker, said it would sell computers with icons located outside the Windows desktop screen that link users to Internet sites, including online stores.

Microsoft's allegedly restrictive contracts with PC makers are a main focus in the Justice Department's antitrust case against Microsoft. Microsoft is accused of making it difficult for the computer makers to promote features and programs from Microsoft rivals, including the Internet browser made by Netscape Communications Corp.

A Microsoft spokesman declined to comment on its talks with PC companies. But the spokesman, Jim Cullinan, reiterated the company's position that it does not restrict the ability of computer makers to customize PCs.

Written by David E. Kalish

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