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

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.

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.