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For Atlanta users of new computer link it's `Georgia on my line'

Which of the following would you like to do from your home with a computer? Shop? Send a letter? Make a new friend? Get up-to-date business and other news? Sell your kittens? Up to now, the centers for these activities have largely been nationwide services, such as CompuServe and The Source, which have thousands of customers buying, banking, and getting information by home computer.

Now a small, new company is trying to add a more personal touch by offering a variety of services tailored to the local scene.

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Subscribers will be able to buy merchandise via home computer from a limited number of local stores, get updated information on local business and cultural events, place classified ads, and send electronic mail.

The California-based company, Caribou, plans to start a number of subsidiaries around the nation. It has just opened its first one, called Georgia OnLine, here in Atlanta. Caribou officials claim theirs is the first such regional computer information service of its kind.

Independent computer industry analyst Steve Metzger says Caribou has features that are ``somewhat different'' from other existing computer services.

Will people change their buying habits and use computers more? Mr. Metzger is not sure they will, at least not quickly. ``Buying by computer in the home is a concept whose time has not quite come along. This is something the consumers are not used to doing,'' he says.

Peoples' reasons for using home computers are changing, says Metzger, a project director for Frost & Sullivan, a market research firm.

Buyers used to be more intent on using them to play games; today they are more likely to want to use them for information, he says. A lot of home computers purchased to play games are sitting ``off in a corner'' in many homes, Metzger says.

Caribou marketing director Alfred Keener, an ex-CompuServe official, hopes the localized computer service becomes ``another reason to justify the purchase of a home computer.'' The company's basic service will cost $12 a month, with added features at $6 an hour.

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The system is easy to use, he said at a recent press conference here. But after the conference, this writer had some difficulty getting started on the system using a demonstration computer. So did the company technician employee at my side. The explanation by the employee -- ``when you change parameters you have to log off'' -- was not very reassuring. But once passed the sign-on barriers, it was easy.

However, the service so far has only three local stores on it, very limited news and other listings, and only some of the planned additional features. Mr. Keener would not say how many customers have signed up.

H. Clayton Smith, Caribou president, predicts ``the home computer is going to be a kitchen appliance.'' But he says his biggest challenge is to ``change people's habits,'' to get them to do more by computer.

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