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PERSONAL COMPUTERS GAIN IN INTERACTIVE-SERVICES RACE

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The first wave of publicity about the information superhighway put the television set at the center of the brave new electronic world. Computer makers beg to differ.

Of course, those attending this past week's Comdex trade show here have plenty of personal bias in putting the personal computer ahead of the TV set.But with two-way cable-TV projects slipping behind schedule and the mammoth merger of Bell Atlantic and Tele-Communications Inc. unraveling, personal computers have gained recently in the race to bring interactive services into the home.

"I think the horse race is over. The information appliance is the PC," said Eric Dunn, vice president of Intuit Inc., makers of the popular financial software called Quicken.

Dunn noted that the share of U.S. households with personal computers - now 30 percent - is expected to rise to 50 percent within couple of years. That would make them almost as common as cable-TV service, which now reaches about 60 percent of all homes - though only a fraction of those computers are equipped to with communication hardware and software.

Speakers noted that interactive cable-TV projects will feature a new kind of set-top box powered by microchips as powerful as those found in today's top-of-the-line PCs.

So instead of paying hundreds of dollars adding a computer to your TV, why not connect existing PCs to your home's existing coaxial cable-TV line, said Ron Whittier, senior vice president of Intel, the industry's leading maker of computer chips.

Intel, along with Cable News Network, is testing just such a setup, and other cable-TV companies have started providing similar links to computer networks.

"1995 will be the year of the information superhighway on the PC," Whittier said. "Is this wishful thinking? I don't think so."

Whittier pointed out that computer users should be more willing than the average couch potato to navigate through the complex systems that are likely to be needed during the first tests of interactive TV.

Cable companies, however, are promising that their sophisticated remote controls will be easy to use.

Whittier acknowledged that predicting trends in the fast-changing field is tricky: "`Crystal ball' in this business means what will happen by Christmas."

Others said it was still too early to guess what kinds of information devices will develop as they combine various aspects of TVs, telephones and personal computers.

"I can see that there could be a wide variety of enhanced TV products," said Bruce Claflin, general manager of the IBM Personal Computer Co.