Can IBM get it right the second time around?

With the announcement of its new "PS/1" line of home computers -- standard MS-DOS PCs bearing the vaunted IBM label, but priced for the mass market -- Big Blue is diving back into a business where it failed rather miserably in the early 1980s.

Surely you remember the late, lamented IBM PCjr, a 1983 innovation that was supposed to win International Business Machines Corp. a giant share of the home computer market. In many ways, "junior" was an innovative and useful machine. But the product was underpowered, difficult to expand and not really inexpensive once you added the necessary peripherals. It flopped in the marketplace and IBM pulled the plug on junior after a year and a half of anemic sales.

But IBM has announced that it will try again to win a foothold at the low-price end of the PC market. The new PS/1 machines, on sale now in a few test cities, will be available nationwide in September. The machines all use the 80286 microprocessor, which is not the most powerful chip in the world but is still perfectly acceptable.

I never thought I'd use the terms "IBM" and "bargain" in the same sentence, but here goes: Judging from the specifications, the IBM PS/1 looks like a bargain. The cheapest model, equipped with a sharp monochrome display, one 3.5-inch floppy drive, a mouse, a built-in modem and free copies of DOS and Microsoft Works, should sell for about $800. (IBM's suggested price is $999, but the "street price" for computers is almost always lower because dealers will cut their margin to get sales.) That's not a bad price for a no-name import clone, much less a machine with IBM's reputation and service force behind it.

Even for limited home use, though, that basic configuration is probably too simple. You really ought to get a color display, particularly if your kids are going to be using the computer. And a hard disk makes life so much easier -- it's well worth the $350 or so additional cost. A PS/1 equipped with those add-ons, plus the mouse, modem and free software) will probably have a street price of $1,700 -- higher than most clones, but still not bad.

Of course, IBM's pricing structure for the PS/1 won't last long. For one thing, all those clone-makers out there will cut their prices, forcing IBM to lower its own prices. And the advent of new low-end computers from Apple (industry scuttlebutt suggests there will be a hard-disk-equipped Macintosh model selling for less than $1,000 by the end of the year) will increase the pressure for price cuts.

Just in its effect on PC prices, then, the PS/1 line promises to be a boon to all computer buyers. Beyond that, though, how useful will the new machines be? Based on what IBM has revealed so far, this computer could be a winner, particularly for millions of computerphobiacs who are scared of anything that looks the slightest bit high-tech.

IBM has designed a system that should set up in minutes and put the user into an easy-to-use operating environment as soon as it is turned on. IBM provided the built-in modem to encourage folks to sign up for Prodigy, the on-line information system owned jointly by IBM and Sears. I find Prodigy to be unbearably slow and stupid, but you can always use the modem to call other on-line systems. IBM may also offer on-line service advice via modem.

A crucially important point is that the PS/1 can evidently run all standard MS-DOS software. That's a big advance from the days of PCjr, a machine that often required special versions of software programs. The PS/1s will run Windows 3.0, the hot new "operating environment" that has taken off like a rocket. However, on the PS/1 configuration, Windows will likely be so slow that many users will tire of it.

One dumb thing IBM did -- repeating a mistake made on PCjr -- was to design a computer without expansion slots. If you want to stick in a fax board or a CD-ROM reader or anything else requiring its own circuit board, PS/1 has no place to put it. IBM says it will sell a separate $170 expansion module to permit three add-on boards.

But why make it so difficult? All the clones come with expansion slots built into the basic machine. I've been advising potential purchasers of low-end Macintosh computers to hold off for a while. My theory is that it would be a mistake to buy a Mac Plus or SE today, when Apple seems likely to introduce a better and cheaper machine in a few months.

Now I must offer the same advice to people looking for low-end DOS computers. Wait till September to see whether the IBM PS/1 machines meet your needs. Even if they don't, the coming of the new line will mean lower prices on competing models.