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Originally published Sunday, November 19, 2006 at 12:00 AM

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Computer makers cut down on desktop clutter

Lately computer makers have been cutting down on the number of icons in favor of a leaner look, even though it may hurt revenue, in hopes of enticing novice users.

Seattle Times technology reporter

Not so long ago, firing up a brand new computer was a little like jumping into a virtual flea market: You never knew who would show up to hawk their wares.

The computer's most valuable piece of real estate, the desktop that appears on the screen at startup, would be filled with trial versions of all kinds of programs. A greeting-card creator, perhaps, or a strange car-racing game or that onetime ever-present America Online software.

Although Microsoft owns the Windows operating system on most consumer PCs, the company has no say in what programs come preinstalled. That's left to computer makers, a policy that was reinforced in the company's 2001 settlement with the Department of Justice. Those guidelines will continue with the launch of the Windows Vista operating system, which will be available to businesses at the end of this month and to consumers in January.

But the desktop is changing, trimming away the extras in favor of a simpler experience. Lately, computer makers have been cutting down on the number of icons on computer desktops, analysts say, even though the sacrifice could mean losing valuable revenue as the prices of machines continue to drop.

"A clean-desk policy seems less intimidating to a novice user," said Steve Kleynhans, an analyst with Gartner. But most PC makers still include large amounts of add-on software because those deals can mean making a profit or taking a loss on each PC sold, he said.

The difference these days is that rather than cluttering up the desktop, Kleynhans said, computer makers are tucking those items into the start menu or hiding them behind a single installation icon.

"This allows the PC maker to guide the user through the first steps of the out-of-box experience without simply presenting them with a sea of icons," he said.

Hewlett-Packard displays an average of 10 icons on consumer desktops and notebooks, said Bob Portilla, business-development manager. One program given a high priority is a Norton Internet security package from Symantec; internal research shows that security is a top purchase motivator for PC buyers.

Games in easy reach

Fewer icons make the desktop space even more valuable. Just ask Alex St. John, the chief executive of Redmond computer-game company WildTangent.

St. John has aggressively courted computer makers over the past few years and, as a result, the WildTangent game portal is now preloaded on about 80 percent of consumer PCs in the U.S., or about 20 million to 25 million machines a year.


"Games are strategic to new machines," St. John said. "Games are why you want to buy a new machine."

Anywhere from 10 to 30 games come preloaded on a computer and collected under one icon, St. John said. WildTangent publishes games from dozens of other developers, and its software acts like a gaming portal. Dell rebranded the game console and keeps it on the desktop, he said, while other computer makers place it elsewhere.

Many companies pay big bucks to get their software preloaded on machines. WildTangent has a revenue-sharing deal with computer makers instead of paying them for a specific position on the machine.

On top of that, St. John estimated that computer makers get an additional $35 to $50 for services sold on the desktop after a machine has been purchased. That's a nice stream of money, especially at a time when computer prices are dropping lower than ever.

"It would be disingenuous to say that the revenue is not important to us," said Portilla, at HP, "but providing a bunch of less-than-useful applications and services to our customers that they never use neither benefits the customer or HP. That's why leading with the customer experience first will always get us to the right answer."

HP dropped Apple's iTunes in favor of RealNetworks' Rhapsody as its default music player earlier this year — after an HP decision to stop reselling the iPod. The HP deal is far more important for RealNetworks than just landing a place on the desktop, said Dan Sheeran, a senior vice president at RealNetworks.

"A lot of consumers ignore what's on the desktop," he said. "The more likely place that we're going to be able to engage them is in their use of the PC doing something related to media."

Seattle-based RealNetworks won't say how much it pays to get its software on computers, but said the return on its investment is enough that the company devotes marketing and business-development resources to getting the deals done.

Microsoft play

Microsoft isn't left out of the desktop scenario. In fact, its Office division has jumped into the competition and offers a trial version of Office to computer makers, said Jeff Raikes, president of the company's business division.

"If the customer likes it, they can unlock it," Raikes said. "Just log in with a credit card or make a phone call."

Microsoft started the trial program in 2003, and it now brings the company several hundred million dollars a year, Raikes said. Needless to say, Microsoft is expanding the program.

An HP executive said earlier this month that his company is still in discussions with Microsoft about how exactly that trial software program will work.

"Right now that's something we're still working on," said John Dayan, a marketing and business-development vice president at HP. "I do believe that can be a key driver for growth and accelerated adoption, but there's still a lot of details around that, that we're still working."

The desktop isn't the only place that companies are looking at to house their programs. As more software moves online, the Web browser is becoming an enviable location as well. That's where Google has been spending its time building partnerships.

Dell has partnered with Google to ship computers already loaded with a co-branded homepage and a Google toolbar in the browser, and other computer makers are looking at similar deals.

Kim Peterson: 206-464-2360 or Seattle Time technology reporter Benjamin J. Romano contributed to this report.

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