The idea that people would go out to buy a computer and bring it home is a relatively modern activity, and one that has, over the past few years, gained so much traction as to become commonplace. Back in the 1950s, buying white goods in the form of refrigerators and ovens was a social activity that drew out the whole family, now it is buying the new family computer.
On average people seem to be in the market for a new PC every two or three years, but what look for in that new PC has changed quite dramatically over the past decade. Choosing a PC used to be all about the numbers. The first, and most important, number was as you might expect, price. With a budget in mind, people would look around for the most MHz or GHz, or MBs or GBs, that their money would buy, depending on how far back we're willing to travel back in time. Go back a little over a decade to when the web was still embryonic and buyers were more reliant on brick-and-mortar in their immediate neighborhood, a limitation that put quite a serious squeeze on choice.
It really is hard for people who have had access to the internet, and the wealth of reviews and customer ratings that it offers access to, to imagine how different spending money was in the pre-internet and early internet days. People made less informed choice (yes, far less informed than the choice even your computer buying Joe and Josephine Average makes in 2010), but were, on the whole, more satisfied with the fruits of their consumerist orgy ... at least until things went wrong or someone pointed out to them the folly of their purchase.
The computer's operating system really didn't become a focus for users until the days of Windows 95, and even then, that soon morphed into a hazy idea of wanting a PC with the "latest Windows" on it. This was a vague statement that betrayed the buyer's inexperience, something that many a salesperson took advantage of to shift an old, dusty system sitting on a shelf gathering dust.
Then in 1998 Apple revamped its Mac line-up and introduced the iMac. These introduced two new variables into the purchasing equation. The first was style. The iMacs featured a bold all-in-one design, and featured striking colors and translucent plastics. All of a sudden the box became just as important, and to some more important, than what was inside the box. Apple, because it operated outside of the whole Windows OEM ecosystem and separate to the big names such as Dell, HP and Gateway and as such could work at carving for itself a small, but profitable niche. Meanwhile the big names were all trying, and mostly failing, at differentiating themselves from each other, resulting in and inevitable price war and a race to the bottom in terms of price, and unfortunately, quality and service.
With the 20:20 hindsight that living in 2010 gives us, it's hard to imagine why the big PC OEMs of the late 90s didn't fire up their photocopiers and start rampantly cloning Apple's stylistic trends (in the same way that handset manufacturers have done with the iPhone). The reason is simple - it was seems by many as a massive gamble, and while it increase Apple's profile, and Apple didn't truly go mass market until the company switched processors to Intel silicon in 2006, helped along by the halo effect of what had become by then the de-facto MP3 player - the iPod.
The second variable that Apple introduced into the buying matrix was that of operating system. True, Linux distros have been around since the early 1990s, so there's really been a lot of choice, but these were very much the realm of geeks and the hardcore techies. What Apple did by pushing the iMac into stores and beaming it into people's homes via commercials was offer an alternative, a credible alternative, to Windows. Sure, it wasn't mainstream, but it didn't need to be, because using people like the Jeff Goldblum in commercials gave the impression of mainstream, even if sales didn't support that. While PC OEMs ceaselessly shaved away at profit margins, Apple enjoyed a healthy return on each system sold. Also, it was hard, if not impossible, to directly compare Macs to PCs, and was akin to comparing, well Apples and PCs.
So, with the brief history lesson out of the way, let's think about what people look for in a PC today.
Price is still at the top of the list, more so nowadays since many people are still being careful with the pennies. While hardcore gamers and those wanting the best shiny kit that Apple has to offer might still be willing to throw down $2,000 plus for a system, more people are more comfortable in the three-digit price range.
On the whole, the buying masses don't seem all that interested in GHz and GBs any more. Sure, there's a desire to get the best power possible for the price in mind, but many seem to have a poor grasp of what it all means anyway. What's made it worse are the vast oceans of new terms such as "dual core," "quad-core," "solid state" and "64-bit" to further bemuse and befuddle consumers. It's all gotten too technical for people who just want to spend their money.
One even that does seem to get people throwing their cash retailers is the release of a new operating system. In an odd sort of way, the OS seems to have become far more important than the box it's running on and it's amazing how many OEMs gave a new lease of life to tired product lines by loading a new OS onto the system. People seem to like new operating systems, and maybe it just makes the buying decision easier ... "I have $1,000 to spend, gimme a computer!"
Another factor that's become a popular metric for choosing a system is battery life. A decade ago notebooks were priced such that only business users and hardcore geeks bought them, but nowadays the notebook is in many ways the new desktop. Despite the ever shrinking footprint of desktop systems (the colossal CRT being replaced by an LCD panel, and large towers for ones of more modest proportions), people value the portability and freedom that notebooks offer, especially as WiFi becomes commonplace. As people move away from desktop applications to internet apps and games, notebooks offer enough power, and battery life dictates how long you can work and play wire-free.
Style is also important. Not only because computers need to blend in with furniture, but also because they are being bought by, or more accurately for, teens, who are known for their fickle needs. How something looks is important, despite being gloriously pointless from a practical point of view. But that doesn't matter.
People are willing to pay for style. But style doesn't have to mean less functionality or power. In fact, we are enjoying an era where computer power is in abundance. A netbook today is as powerful as a high-end notebook PC from a few years ago, and most of the limits on what they can and can't do are dreamed up by people who want to upsell you a better system.
Bottom line, what people on the whole seem to be looking for is the cheapest, most stylish computer possible, at least until they get it home. They want it to be the fastest possible, have a long life, and come with an excellent support and a top class warranty. Oh, and they want the latest OS, whether that be Windows or Mac OS X. Or for a few brave souls, Linux.