The Second Time Around

By Peter Coffee  |  Posted 2006-12-11 Print this article Print

Opinion: First-timers and upgrading buyers have different concerns.

Have you ever seen one of those bumper stickers that says, "The worst day fishing is better than the best day working"? Thats how I feel when I look at todays PCs. The worst PC you can buy today is a great piece of gear, better than what you could buy at any price not long ago.

The value proposition of new machines is getting many people interested in upgrades—but the industry still treats PC buyers as first-time customers, failing to lower key barriers to an upgrade purchase.

The prices of new systems are astonishing. On Dells site, for example, I find for less than $500 a machine with a 2GHz CPU with 256K cache, 512MB of RAM, an 80GB hard drive and a CD-burning/DVD-playing optical drive, plus a 15-inch flat-panel display. If Id put up with the weight, bulk and heat of a 17-inch CRT, I could knock off another $100.

What Id get is a whole lot more than most people need for Internet, e-mail, digital photos, and most school or work tasks done at home. The problem is that retail channels, even direct Internet sales, cant make any money selling (and, crucially, supporting) a machine that costs much less.

If you want the media capabilities of a current entry-level machine, your older system may seem pretty lame. There are plenty of people whod be happy to have it, though, and who might reincarnate it for a second life of useful work at essentially zero cost.

As I was writing this column, in fact, I got an e-mail from a reader replying to my column of last week on Microsofts Windows Vista. He had purchased a Pentium III machine for $50, installed Ubuntu Linux in a process that he described as "smoother than any version of Windows Ive ever used" and wound up with a machine that he now finds quite worth having around.

In an eWEEK Labs TestRun roundtable podcast on Vista late last month, I recalled a comment that someone made in the late 1980s about OS/2: "If wed known that the successor to DOS would take two years to deliver, wouldnt multitask old applications well, and would require us to buy new applications with a new look and feel, we could have just adopted desktop Unix and gotten there a whole lot sooner."

With its potential for application breakage in nonadministrator accounts, its new look in core applications such as Microsofts Office 2007 and its need for costly hardware to show off its most visible differences from previous Windows versions, it seems as if Vista might inspire similar thoughts—and now, desktop Unix options are cheap and easy. The phrase "tipping point" comes to mind.

Meanwhile, with people pulling out their credit cards for holiday shopping, Im getting a lot of questions from friends about what they should consider as an upgrade and how they should go about upgrading from what theyre currently using—because few people are buying a first-ever machine. It seems to me a sadly missed opportunity when vendors sell PCs in a way that reflects a conception of all customers as first-time PC buyers.

People ask me how theyll get their old work files moved across to a new machine. They want to know if theyll need to buy new applications software. They want to know if new versions of their current applications will correctly handle work product files created with older versions that theyve been using. They want to know if buying a Macintosh is a realistic option for someone whos been using Windows for several years. PC configurations and PC selling processes should directly address these questions.

What would it cost, for example, to include a back-panel connector on a new PC and a cable—something that would let anyone who can use a screwdriver take the hard drive out of an old machine and transfer files to a new one? If I were a brick-and-mortar seller of PCs, I guarantee you that Id be seeking to differentiate myself from mail-order sellers by offering migration assistance.

Technology Editor Peter Coffee can be reached at

To see reader response to this column, click here. WWWeb Resources

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Peter Coffee is Director of Platform Research at, where he serves as a liaison with the developer community to define the opportunity and clarify developers' technical requirements on the company's evolving Apex Platform. Peter previously spent 18 years with eWEEK (formerly PC Week), the national news magazine of enterprise technology practice, where he reviewed software development tools and methods and wrote regular columns on emerging technologies and professional community issues.Before he began writing full-time in 1989, Peter spent eleven years in technical and management positions at Exxon and The Aerospace Corporation, including management of the latter company's first desktop computing planning team and applied research in applications of artificial intelligence techniques. He holds an engineering degree from MIT and an MBA from Pepperdine University, he has held teaching appointments in computer science, business analytics and information systems management at Pepperdine, UCLA, and Chapman College.

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