Who can we blame?


By Nils Dahl

Date: July 18, 2002

The Inquirer has a rather elegant article about the dot.com boom/bust.  It is filled with comments about who did what and when. It totally misses the target, as all articles that I have seen so far have. The mass market consists of all kinds of people - ranging from the basic AOL users (who have a vast array of services available and can, if they choose, do everything that an Internet user can - but easier) to the wandering old man type who wants to learn about SQL server/clients and write the occasional bothersome opinion piece for a web site. Most of these people are far from stupid 'swallow anything' consumers. And they have friends who often chat about impressions of this online world.

Thus an attempt to directly sell to the Wal-Mart customer base, offering low end packages that are not quite up to current standards will inevitably lead to rapid spreading of adverse comments about the computer as a tool. Now Wal-Mart does like to buy low and sell low, but that policy fails miserably for some types of consumer goods.

Microsoft, which is talking a bit about trusted operating systems and trusted apps, has a long, highly visible track record of releasing untrustworthy software that is quite unsuitable for non-technical users. Trust, Redmond, must be earned - and that takes time. Raising the price on a commodity product sends a message too. Changing the rules sends another message.

Most US residents remember the Bell System monopoly days, when the telephone companies claimed the right to invade homes, inspect wiring, and assess charges for extra telephones or wall outlets that were discovered - insisting that all this was owned by the telephone company. Now property rights make it rather clear that anything attached to a home is a part of that home - and is the property of the owner. Cable firms take note. But if I can blame one factor above all, it is the general attitude toward education and toward people who strive to educate themselves. There has been a general antipathy toward such people in the past. High scholastic achievement is regarded as most important of all in some countries - but sadly not in the U.S.A. Token gestures are made that can be worse than meaningless. For example, a member of my high school class won the state science fair with his CO2 pumped IR laser. The kid was incapable of driving a nail straight but he gained salutatorian status and was very popular. The laser was made for him at a major firm his father held a high position in. The really high achievers tend to be ignored or shunned. I can say this from direct personal experience.

In the computer world, systems are loaded with sample apps that often do little or nothing. No effort is made to educate end users in using anything. In fact, companies make it a standard policy to SELL what used to be the included manuals at absurd prices. Very few companies try to market usable software products that are both well designed and easy to use. My lone example is MasterCook Pro - a very neat recipe database. Of all the players, Apple remains the lone standout in shipping useful end user oriented software products with its systems. Yes, I will insist that the Macintosh system is still the only design that is fairly end user friendly.

So - nobody knows how to market a useful information tool yet. The potential end users have been conditioned to respond to commercials made with computer effects to give the clear impression of a fantasy dream world waiting if they only buy something. And we no longer have great satirists like Stan Freberg to poke fun at all this deliberately deceptive nonsense. Sell illusions and watch what happens when reality hits hard. My friends from Bosnia spend $1500 for a computer system, the kids misplace the system restore cds, and the family discovers that it is going to cost a significant sum just to get 50 cents worth of media to regain their original investment - because of the rules made by Microsoft and the system package seller. Such lessons provide rather effective and lasting lessons in the realities of the computer market.

The software companies often are the worst marketers of all. Corel and IBM both own fabulous productivity suites yet make NO effort to be visible to mass market customers. Pricing of high end products rises every version, causing the best products to become ever smaller niche market items. Who can afford CorelDraw or Canvas from Deneba? Only a graphics professional who designs for a living. Even Paint Shop Pro is getting a bit pricey. Sometimes I feel that companies are determined to destroy their own marketability and go under on purpose. Of course the truth is that many firms see their profit only in the business market, where support, custom work, classes, and bug fixes are major income sources. So a wonderful database like Filemaker Pro slowly sinks into oblivion. And many people regularly weep over Hypercard's demise.

And now Microsoft is trying to sell computers as simplistic entertainment boxes - while obviously preserving its pricing policies and making a few bucks more by selling direct. The XBox is a real computer - carefully disabled to prevent its use for anything except games. This, people, is INSANE design and marketing. The Media Center box is going to be even worse an example of misguided marketing.

Of course I view things from a somewhat different perspective than most people do. I am the type who will gladly pay for a Laurie Anderson cd - or for her frightening Puppet Motel computer game. I wouldn't take a Britney Spears product if you paid me. I can watch Madonna prancing around while singing Material Girl and enjoy her obvious mockery of modern attitudes. Madonna is a world class actress and performer, as she clearly showed in Who's That Girl. Because I have immersed myself in the culture of the world all my life, I can often see value that most people just are not able to recognize or interpret correctly. I often wish that the neighbor's two children were spending a bit more time on learning good manners and much less time playing soccer. They are 13 and 15 years old, yet neither has ever spoken to me. Not once. Hey, maybe I AM strange to most people. How many people bothered to argue and debate over events in the computer world with Hal Hardenburgh of DTACK Grounded as I did? I hope that Hal is still around and doing okay. Yes, I still have all the copies of his newsletter - er, the FNE newsletter written by some mysterious unknown person.

So I will opine that the computer world will continue to see declines in sales because nobody understands how to clearly and HONESTLY market actual value to uneducated but willing potential end users. Van is trying to do something with COSBI but even that is way too technical to do anything for the millions of people who shop Wal-Mart every week. Nobody in the computer world wants to provide, ON THE BOX, a statement of relative performance of the system for 3D games, productivity, Internet use, etc. At best, you get a cryptic "Not upgradeable to Windows XP" warning on some old, slow Celeron systems from HP - which really doesn't tell most people anything of value. It fails to communicate the limited usefulness of a fairly expensive (to the average shopper) box. And when Wal-Mart imposes a 7 day return policy on computers, while giving us 90 days on almost everything else, that sends a very, very powerful message that everyone can understand.

Perhaps, just perhaps, Intel and Microsoft have played their upgrade game to the point of no return - and are finally killing the market for their products except in the business world, where teams of experts test and pick out hardware that is suitable for running the work.

Did I make any useful points here?

nils dahl

just an old man



Pssst!  We've updated our Shopping Page.