GOING HUNTING FOR CURRANTS (column) - benefits of Macintosh

Written by David Tebbutt, Computer Buyer 08/91 - scanned

[David Tebbutt was amazed by the people at the Computer Shopper show - from the serious customers to the fruitcakes. And, for him, the experience clarified the way the industry is going.]

Suppose you like currants but were uninterested in spotted dick. Some spotted dicks, those rich in currants, would probably appeal, but others, like those served at school, would be so sparsely spotted that you probably wouldn't have the patience to dig out the good bits.

The visitors to the recent Computer Shopper Show reminded me very much of a huge spotted dick where the serious customers were the spots and the others were... I think I'd better abandon the spotted dick analogy, before I get into trouble.

In another life, I am involved with a tiny software publishing company called BrainStorm, which went to the Shopper show to lure prospects onto the stand for a chat or a demonstration. People interested in BrainStorm were few and far between: most visitors to the show were either hell bent on buying cheap PCs, printers, disks and games consoles or were tyre-kickers and timewasters.

For those who knew exactly what they wanted, the show must have been heaven. For those who didn't have a clue, it was probably hell. For example, one chap came onto our stand to tell us he wasn't sure whether to buy a PC or a Macintosh, but he was determined to go home with something. Apart from the fact the show had no Macintoshes, I can't see how someone so ignorant of the basic facts could go to a show intending to purchase a machine. Later, he came back to say he had been assured that an 80286 computer with regular memory and a hard disk would be fine for Windows. "And look, sir, it works just like a Macintosh". Not having seen a Macintosh, he actually believed it.

Another visitor asked where the Amstrad stand was. "I want to buy an Amstrad. I've heard it makes very good machines. By the way, does it make Macintoshes?" No wonder most of the exhibitors were rubbing their hands with glee. Thousands of visitors, wet behind the ears, with money burning holes in their pockets were exactly what they wanted. I was almost relieved, at the end of the show, to see my neighbouring stand - which was selling those ghastly Amstrad portables with the processed-pea coloured screens - taking away almost as many computers as it had brought.

The show was like a street market. Some bits - like ours - were more like specialist shops, but most stands were pile `em high, flog 'em cheap affairs. The experience has helped me clarify my thoughts on the industry. Without question, it is polarising. At one end you have the high volume, low profit, minimal support approach. At the other you have the low volume, high profit, lots of expensive - but often value-for-money - support.

The polarisation is visible in the type of products around. In the PC market, you have Windows and DOS. In the Apple market, you have the old operating system and the new System 7. If you look at computer shows, you have Which Computer? and Business Computing at one end, and Computer Shopper at the other. If you look at people who sell computers, you have the Dixons at one end, and professional computer dealers at the other.

The high end of the business is characterised by the need to connect computers, either in networks or through direct connections to mainframes or minicomputers. The low end is represented by the solo user. The issue is clouded slightly by the fact that many connected users also use their machines as solo machines. If they want to run their own personal productivity tools, then they are on their own and can't expect support from their company's technical wizards.

Solo users are, I believe, the principal readers of Computer Buyer and visitors to the Computer Shopper Show. They, or should I say you, are fairly hard done by when it comes to help and support. The fact is that if there's no money to be made, few people are going to help you. The low cost options are books, magazines, and the clinics at computer shows. It's certainly no use going to a computer dealer prepared to spend £500 and then expecting a lot of help. It simply won't be forthcoming.

Using computers effectively requires a great deal of effort and understanding on the part of the user, especially on PCs. Research suggests that PC users run an average of just over one application on their machines, whereas Macintosh users run just over four. Assuming that piracy is equally rife, this suggests that the Macintosh is a far more usable machine. Which it is.

Statistics show that personal computers in large companies are reaching saturation point. Dealers have found large companies easy to identify and fairly easy to sell to. They were already computer literate anyway. In terms of volume, the greatest opportunity for the hardware and mass-market software business is at the level of the solo user. You can be sure that every manufacturer worth its salt is trying to find a better way to satisfy this very price-sensitive market.

The best way would be to make PCs as easy to use as a washing machine or a video recorder. Preferably easier. At the moment, it is the failure of the industry to create usable systems that is making life so difficult for you and slowing their own growth. If you can't afford to lash out on the support necessary to overcome the industry's own weaknesses - and why should you - then the industry has to do something about it. Perhaps it's time for Apple to stop being so possessive about its Macintosh operating system. If it produced a PC version and let other manufacturers use it, it could earn a fortune in licence fees and introduce the whole world to the indisputable benefits of Macintosh-style computing.