By Dan Gillmor

Mercury News Computing Editor

TIDBITS and bytes from the virtual desktop:

The on-line world has adopted a conceit from credit card companies and public broadcasting -- calling its customers ``members.''

I'm not a member of my phone company. You're not a member of this newspaper. We buy products and services. We don't join them.

While I absolutely do not consider myself a member of my Internet access provider, I am a member of several electronic mailing lists, including one that my family created so we could stay in touch.

I'm a CompuServe customer, but I'm a member of several CompuServe message boards where I get valuable information and join the discussions. I'm not sure what my status is on the message boards where I only read (or lurk, as reading but not contributing is known in the on-line world).

There's no great mystery in why companies try to convince customers that they're members of something. Most of us want deeper connections in this arms-length world, a sense of belonging. We crave the sense of community we've steadily lost in recent years.

Then there's the secret-handshake motive. Implying that customers are members of a club, a (not so) secret society, companies are playing on an illusion of exclusivity. Cynical -- but it must work, because they persist.

I don't know about you, but I feel warmest and fuzziest toward companies that make good products and then support them well.

When you get down to it, Groucho Marx probably had it right. He said he didn't want to be a member of any organization that would have him.

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ONE of the more entertaining battles of words in recent weeks erupted on the editorial page of the Wall Street Journal. Lotus Development Corp. Chairman Jim Manzi whined about Microsoft Corp.'s dominance in the software industry. Microsoft Chairman Bill Gates whined right back that Lotus and everyone else should stop picking on him.

You don't have to be a Microsoft acolyte to be amused when Lotus complains about other companies' business tactics. Lotus, after all, is the company that wants to copyright its 1-2-3 spreadsheet menus. That's like allowing one TV maker to charge royalties when another TV maker uses an on-off switch.

Lotus also might be in better competitive shape if it hadn't ditched more great products than most companies ever invent. Its Agenda and Magellan information-management programs had substantial and fervent followings, for example, but Lotus abandoned both.

One of Microsoft's biggest competitive advantages is its competitors' persistent blundering.

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DON'T-Confuse-Me-With-Logic Department: PC Magazine in a recent review of computers awarded an Editors' Choice to Packard Bell. This puzzled readers who noted that the magazine's Readers' Report Card for Service and Reliability had put Packard Bell in the worst service ranking for the previous four surveys. (Packard Bell also has fared badly in PC World surveys).

Bill Howard, PC Magazine executive editor, explained in the March 28 issue that the Editors' Choice reflected how easy it has become to set up the Packard Bell machine, with its color-coded cables and other smart ideas -- and the ``tremendous software bundle'' that comes with the machine. ``It's a great bargain,'' he wrote of the computer.

I don't consider anything a bargain when its manufacturer has a reputation for shoddy service. Packard Bell is selling gazillions of computers to absolute neophytes. If nothing goes wrong, it probably is a great bargain. If you need help, you appear to be on your own.

As long as Packard Bell stays way behind the curve in customer support, it will never be this editor's choice.

Write Dan Gillmor at the Mercury News, 750 Ridder Park Dr., San Jose, Calif. 95190; call (408) 920-5016; fax (408) 920-5917. Better yet, send him e-mail: dgillmor on Mercury Center or dgillmor@sjmercury.com on the Internet.

Published 3/26/95 in the San Jose Mercury News.

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