Inside one PC buyer's mind (aka: A message for Michael Dell, Microsoft and other PC makers)

Inside one PC buyer's mind (aka: A message for Michael Dell, Microsoft and other PC makers)

Summary: As the neighborhood's local IT department, I get my fair share of requests for consultations from family members, friends, and neighbors. The names are changed to protect the innocent.

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As the neighborhood's local IT department, I get my fair share of requests for consultations from family members, friends, and neighbors. The names are changed to protect the innocent. Behind me lives Jane who recently asked me what smartphone to buy for her new job (I answered with a question and a wink: What smartphones can be connected to your to new employer's e-mail system?).

My wife? Many of her trials and tribulations have been documented in this space. After multiple false starts, she's finally up and running as mostly a standard user of Vista on a new Lenovo Thinkpad. As far as she's concerned, the only thing interesting about Vista (compared to the copy of XP she was using before) is the sticky note app in the gadget bar. And even then, the only reason it's interesting to her is because the top sticky note says "Reminder: Your husband loves you." I put it there one night as it took me hours to iron out one of the problems that kept her from using the system after it was first purchased. She likes that one sticky note so much she doesn't even realize there's a nearly infinite supply of blanks underneath it.

Bottom line with my wife: I've been watching her work on the new system for the last couple of weeks. If anything, Vista has made her less productive. She's not crazy about having to logoff her standard user ID in order to log back in as an administrator to get certain things done (if that sounds like fodder for one of my Tech Shakedowns, stand by... one is coming). She has tried doing a Vista user account "switch" (where you log in under some other account while never logging off from your first account). Internet Explorer 7 hangs every time. She learned on her own to log off completely from one account before logging into another. Sigh.

My neighbor Sue is equally non-plussed about Vista. In fact, based on my last tech support visit, I'm pretty sure she's not aware that she's using it. She kept referring to her system as "the computer" as though what it did was not a function of the operating system or applications it ran. While some of you might be rolling your eyes at her, I'm rolling my eyes at you. During a recent speech he gave in Boston, Web inventor Sir Tim Berners-Lee talked about how Web users shouldn't have to know what Web browser they're using. According to Berners-Lee, in the course of giving you access to the Web, the browser should pretty much vanish into the background (today, it could be said that most browsers get in the way).

As an owner of a small family-run business, Sue is a pretty savvy businesswoman. At first, the idea that a business owner wouldn't have some deeper insight into the internals of the computer she needs to run her business seems ludicrous. But, the more I think about it, the more I realize that Sue is 100 percent right to not know what operating system she's using. If the operating system is doing its job, she shouldn't even realize it's there. To Sue, the computer is primarily a tool for printing business documents, many of which are legal agreements that need to be faxed. If she can't print those documents and fax them, then the truth is that everyone with a hand in putting that system in front of her has failed.

And that's why she called. She couldn't print her documents. Sue explained to me how she got to where she was -- the point at which she called me. Dell, the manufacturer of her previous computer let her down. She had problems. She called Dell. Someone with an Indian accent picked up the phone. Not only did she have a hard time understanding the technician, she could tell he was reading from a script -- a script that she could tell right away didn't apply to her. Maybe the tech didn't have the chops to go off script. Fed up, Sue had the chops to go off Dell. Sitting in front of me, waiting to be "fixed" was a big HP notebook with a brilliant display that wasn't printing. Looking at the stickers on the wrist rest, I noted out loud that it had an AMD Turion 64 processor (even though the version of Vista was 32-bit). Sue asked what that meant and I explained. Intel, AMD take note. My sense is that way fewer buyers care than don't.

In the basement was a WiFi-enabled HP CP6100 series color printer, scanner, and fax machine wrapped into one. Sue bought her notebook at Sam's Club but bought the printer at Staples. Her reason for picking HP? She figured it stood a better chance of being compatible with her HP computer. In my nearly 25 years of working in the PC industry, this sort of buying on the basis of assumed compatibility has been one of the most consistent themes I have ever observed.

And there I was, troubleshooting a failure.

The failure wasn't Sue's. It was the industry's. After those same 25 years, we should be well past the words "I can't print." But we're not. Sue followed the directions that said to put the printer's installation CD into the computer's CD drive. Auto-play, the feature of most operating systems that automatically launches installation routines on newly inserted CDs simply didn't work. Not that it would have mattered if it did work. After forcing autoplay, I noted that the drivers on the CD were incompatible with Windows Vista. I found the correct ones online (sidebar: HP's Web site is one of the best I've seen in terms of locating, downloading, and installing drivers).

A day after installing the printer, she called me back. "I can't print." Shocked, I went back. Even more shocked, I have no idea what went wrong. Yesterday, I left a perfectly functioning PC-printer pair-up. Today, it was if the two had never met and it's not like you can accidentally uninstall software on Windows Vista. It actually takes work. Even so, the software was gone. So, I reinstalled it. Sue talked about how her daughters used the machine the night before for instant messaging with their friends and hypothesized that it might have been something they did, inadvertently.

Before I left, I pointed out to Sue two other features of her investment. First, that she could fax directly from her PC without printing anything out (as opposed to printing out, and then faxing). Second, that she could give her daughters their own accounts on the system -- accounts that would not only allow each of the girls to partition their instant messaging and Web preference from each other, but also accounts that couldn't interfere with the system's installation.

It was all news to her.....and a failure on behalf of the PC industry that's impossible to quantify.

Topics: Hewlett-Packard, Hardware, Microsoft, Operating Systems, Windows

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129 comments
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  • Interesting concept

    <i>"But, the more I think about it, the more I realize
    that Sue is 100 percent right to not know what operating
    system she?s using."</i>

    Too bad, to not know there are alternatives to the
    everyday things you do...

    Maybe it would be best if we all shopped at Wal-Mart
    too, and never realized there were other ways to spend
    our money?
    Kid Icarus-21097050858087920245213802267493
    • She does know there are alternatives.

      The every day things she does is run her business. If she has to be an operating system expert to do that, then the operating system has failed in its purpose.

      I'll say it now. She should have been encouraged to buy an Apple computer precisely because Apple understands her and those like her. You, HP, Dell and Microsoft, don't and make fun of her instead.
      frgough
      • Huh?

        Making fun of her? I thought it was odd that she should be resigned to never knowing that other alternatives exist. Just like it would be odd that we be resigned to just shopping at Wal-Mart.

        I'm not sure you understood what I wrote.
        Kid Icarus-21097050858087920245213802267493
        • She knows alternatives exist thats why she got the HP not Dell - NT

          NT
          raycote
      • Been to Best Buy lately?

        The alternatives are still not real alternatives. Yesterday I went into Futureshop and BestBuy. 95% of what is there is for Windows or has some connection or label affixed that mentions Windows. In both stores there was a small little section for Macs. The average consumer not knowing much about computers is going to go with the masses no matter what a technical person tells them. Windows MUST be better because look at all the stuff you can buy to go with it.

        I think that's the point of David's story...she's an end user like the rest of the masses, not a techie.
        GeiselS
      • Operating System Has Failed

        But, it seems so hard for those with ties to the Wintel *support* industry to see it that way. Like "frgough" said, they tend to hold all those NON-experts (the *overwhelming* majority of the "95%" with Wintel variants on their desks or laps) in contempt and heap scorn on them for being so "ignorant" . . . etc.

        Sad.

        And pathetic. Like, some how, it would be a badge of honor if one were to *have* to read a book, take a college course and get certified just to use (and "maintain") a freaking cell phone.

        If you know what I mean.

        One of my friends---one of those sorry souls (and former ZDnet employees, btw)---has been convinced that he *cannot* use anything but Wintel to co-exist in the business world. When he replaced his old Vaio with something new, he actually listened to me and got it configured with XP.

        It was wonderful to see the grin on his face when he actually got it printing with my two-year old printer---with my help. At least in works.

        And, he can still cruise the net, do email and play solitaire.

        This is a guy how made well into "six digits" during the dotcom boom. He made gobs of cash because of computers, but is pretty clueless about what's under the hood. To say he needs to be somewhat of an "Operating System Expert" to deal with some of the more obscure (I'm trying to be charitable and not sound like a "fanboy" for another OS) nuances of Windows (especially Vista) is not stretch.

        It's either that, suffer, or call and "expert."

        My dad once told me that an expert was some SOB from out of town who carries a briefcase.

        At the time, I was impressed; I was young at the time and he traveled a lot---with a briefcase.

        Now, I pity those who have no clue and think they are dependent on people like my dad.

        They're not. They just don't know it.

        Yet.
        brian ansorge
    • Computers are like hammers or jet engines.

      "Too bad, to not know there are alternatives to the everyday things you do... Maybe it would be best if we all shopped at Wal-Mart too, and never realized there were other ways to spend our money?"

      The point wasn't that she doesn't know that there are alternatives, but that whatever she uses must accomplish the task at hand.

      Assuming you own a hammer, what brand is it, and why? If you don't know what brand your hammer is without looking at it, then you have the same mindset she does. Namely, as long as it drives nails, who cares what brand it is?

      When you get on a jet airplane, do you know or care if the engines are GE, Pratt & Whitney, Rolls Royce, or any other manufacturer? Or is your one and only consideration for them that they push the plane through the air long enough to get you to your destination?
      Letophoro
      • So what you are saying

        if you apply the same logic to shopping, we should all just resign to the fact that there are no differences between Wal-Mart and the Ma and Pa store down the street, and just support Wal-Mart?

        Is that what you want? A one-size-fits all economy? Sounds awfully bland to me? There are differences between the products you listed, you may not see it up in front in your eyes at first, but there is a difference.

        Sounds like to me, you are saying to just take things at face value and forget about the nuances that make things difference. Maybe we should strip the labels and logos from everything so we feel we don't NEED a choice.

        I understand that she does realize there are choices but to resign yourself to not knowing is a defeatist point of view, IMHO.
        Kid Icarus-21097050858087920245213802267493
        • You went off into left field.... ?

          You even lost me. He is saying some people just want things to work.. they dont care how they work, why they work, or who made them.. they just need them to work.

          My argument for him is.. yes i want it to work.. no i dont care what it is.. but if it doesnt work, who made it and what it is does matter to me. Mainly because i wont buy from them again if i dont have to.
          Been_Done_Before
        • You are completely missing the point.

          Having choices is a good thing. Knowing about them is good as well. But unless a tool works, all the differences in the world are worthless.

          She obviously knew there were choices. She did get a machine from a different manufacturer after all. But her main priority was to accomplish the task at hand. From that perspective, the OS is irrelevant.

          "I understand that she does realize there are choices but to resign yourself to not knowing is a defeatist point of view, IMHO."

          It's not a matter of not knowing. It's a matter of minor (to her) differences like the OS being unimportant.
          Letophoro
        • So only mechanics should drive cars! - NT

          NT
          raycote
    • The Toaster

      Most users really couldn't give a crap about what OS is on their machines. To them, the computer is an information appliance designed to take their raw info and spit out a finished document, medical claim, etc. They don't want to know anything about what goes on in the box as long as their work gets done - and they actually shouldn't have to know anything else. It should function as it needs to without constant tweaking, patching and service.

      It's Microsoft's job to deliver a OS that will meet their needs. And if MS can't their act together soon, Apple will probably get the job done first
      dilbert@...
  • If only there was a better way

    "It was all news to her?..and a failure on behalf of the PC industry that?s
    impossible to quantify."

    Some alternative to windows and the buck passing. Where hundreds of
    incompatible versions of driver and junk hardware wasn't the norm. Where fisher
    price interfaces aren't passed off as new improved versions with negotiable
    difference in functionality. Somewhere where the company thinks about user
    interaction.

    Guess we'll just have to wait for MS and Dell to invent it;-)
    Richard Flude
    • Re: If only there was a better way

      You couldn't mean an alternative that you take out the box, plug it in and it just works. What a utopian pipe dream.
      A Grain of Salt
      • You aren't thinking of a Mc are you? NT

        :)
        Ken_z
        • Can't be a Mac

          Apple does not teach people how to use a computer anymore then the next manufacturer.

          "What? this car has 'variable speed wipers'? What is that?"
          GuidingLight
          • The "Holy Grail" of computers is not to teach people how

            to use them but to have a system that people can use without having to be taught.

            Pagan jim
            Laff
          • I just bought a MacBook Pro

            Apple didn't need to teach me how to use it. In fact, everything bit of hardware I have thrown at has just worked. It has truly changed my thinking about what a computer should be and what it should do.

            For example the MacBook Pro/OS X found all of our HP printers which have TCP/IP printing enabled and asked which it should use. Even Linux will scan the local subnet to find available printers. Windows needs to find some PC or Server that is sharing a printer on the "Windows Network." Setup of a direct TCP/IP printer port isn't obvious to the usual Windows user and requires that they know the address in advance.

            Installing a Mac application is as simple as dragging it to the application folder. Uninstalling is as simple as putting it in the trash.

            The level of ease that the Mac gives is beyond the conception of most Windows users.
            jacarter3
          • How nice for you -

            but hardly extensible into the real world. The amount that Mac MAY be ahead of the alternatives is DWARFED by the distance yet to go to get an applicance that 'just works'.

            TO make it a little clearer to some people - your car probably has a computer in it. Do you know what processor it runs? Does it HAVE an OS - or is it directly programmed? Do you really CARE about that - or only that it keeps the fuel mixture correct, and handles the rest of its tasks correctly?

            This is nothing LIKE the Wal-Mart thing earlier - you can choose which car you want, and where you get it, BUT you expect it to work REGARDLESS of these choices....
            Freebird54
          • I am unsure what point you're tryng to make here

            but I can tell you this about when you wrote:

            "[i]BUT you expect it to work REGARDLESS of these choices[/i]"

            I have used Windows for 25 years. One expectation I have never had the luxury of having is the one where I expect any Walmart, CompUSA, BestBuy or Circuit City to WORK REGARDLESS.

            My last Windwos PC purchase was just las December as I needed to buy another machine for my entertainment center as the older Sony laptop wouldn't run in widescreen mode.

            It's an HP Pavilion slimline box with XP Media Center and it has to be the most useless PC I have ever owned. It doesn't work very well, and it's a POS but I use it for browsing the Internet only, so it's tolerable. If it was a car, I'd leave the keys in it hoping some idiot would steal it and get it off my hands...

            I wish now that instead I had bought a Mac Mini for about the same price.
            jacarter3