Unsolicited Advice to Makers of Computers – From a Heavy User
I have three Windows based PCs, and the ex-GF has a Mac. One of the Windows based PCs is a desktop, all the rest of our machines are laptops. One is a mini purchased three months ago, and the oldest machine (the desktop) is two years old. All but one are name brands… and a few months ago there was another (name brand) machine that has since died. Until recently I was a consultant, so there was a need for much number crunching in our household.
But here’s the thing – not one of the machines is fully operational. Peripherals don’t work, or don’t work with the machine, or don’t work reliably. We’re not computer geeks in this household, but we’re not exactly ignorant either. I spent a summer working in a computer repairshop and I have no problems opening up a machine and poking around if need be. I’ve even been known to do some prodding and the occasional fondling when the situation called for it. The ex-GF is more the help-desk type, and I’ve been forced to deal with that lately too. It usually doesn’t help. Its not helping the ex-GF either; her machine just came back from the “Genius Bar” and I wouldn’t be surprised if it goes back pretty soon.
I realized that maybe as recently as four or five years ago, every computer I bought lasted four or five years or more, and usually gave me no problems. On the rare occasions when I had to call the help desk, it solved the problem once and for all. I’m about to take the new mini to repair shop and tell them a) to do something about the the wireless modem turning itself off at random times for a week at a time and b) make the $#%^ cd reader I bought work with the thing. I’m prepared to pay as much as the mini itself cost me just to have it working once and for all and never again have to deal with the tech support people. I estimate I’ve spent about eighteen hours trying to fix these two problems myself (with and without tech support) and I’m tired and aggravated. My time is worth something, and avoidance of aggravation is worth more.
I was kvetching to my Dad, but his response was: “How many other industries are there which produce such complex pieces of equipment so cheaply?” I guess when you grew up with punch cards, you bring a different perspective to the table. And he’s right – you can’t build something this complex for this little and expect it to work. But computer makers aren’t advertising their machines as being any less reliable than the machines that a decade ago were being engineered to be dropped from a third story window and still function as if nothing happened.
All this got me thinking about the 1968 Buick Skylark I drove while I was high school and college. It was older than I was (I’m a 1970 model year, having, rolled off the assembly line in late 1969), and you had to fill it up every time you left the house, plus once more on the way back. And it could take a beating; a woman ran into me once with a Lincoln, and while I would not be surprised if that was the end of the Lincoln, I fixed the damage to the Skylark with a hammer. No amenities except an ashtray, but the damn thing worked for twenty five years. Which means it was still running long after most of the Buicks made in the 1970s and 1980s had been scrapped. (I don’t have statistics to back up that statement, but like everyone else, I’ve been in Buicks made in the 1970s and 1980s.) On paper Buicks from the 1970s and 1980s were much better vehicles, coming with fancy features such as shoulder restraints, automatic windows, better mileage, and a suspension system that didn’t allow the $#%^ing boat to rock for a twenty-three minute window after every turn.
My guess is that the 1970s and 1980s models were also better for GM’s profitability, at least at first. After all, they had to be replaced a lot sooner, which meant more cash flow. At least at the time. But eventually, people stopped buying American vehicles. I had three American cars before I called it quits. The aggravation of dealing with all the little things that went wrong wasn’t worth the hassle. Its not just that the vehicles themselves had issues; the dealers I dealt with weren’t much better. All sorts of bits and pieces like vent covers and knobs fell off my then brand-new Camaro, and the windows never sealed properly from day one, but none of the dealers ever fixed these problems.
As I see it, computer manufacturers today are emulating GM in the 1970s and 1980s. They’re starting the process of driving away their customer base. What makes their situation, for now, better than GM’s in the 1970s and 1980s is that it seems like all the computer makers are doing it. There is nobody out there producing quality machines, even at slightly higher prices. I suspect there is a market for more reliable machines – even if that reliability comes at the expense of a few features or a higher price, provided its advertised and sold that way. It doesn’t have to be engineered to take a bullet, but it does have to work. All the time. Convince me that it does and I’ll pay a premium. And I suspect there are a lot of people like me out there.