On The Road With Fred D'lgnazio
Are Computers A Home Appliance?
Fred D'lanazio. Associate Editor
Necessary, Easy, And Inexpensive
In recent columns I have written about a growing consumer awareness that things are not right with the microcomputer industry. Some misleading advertisements have made people buy computers as a home appliance. Unfortunately, the computers have not met some people's expectations, and then ended up gathering dust in the closet.
To be a legitimate home appliance, a product should have three characteristics:
It should be inexpensive.
It should meet a real need.
It should be easy to use.
Let's look closely at each characteristic, and see how computers measure up.
A home appliance should be inexpensive. A low-end computer often appears to be inexpensive, but it turns out to be costly after a person adds the necessary "extras," including a disk drive, a printer, and some basic software.
A home appliance should meet a real need. For example, people use telephones to communicate; TVs for entertainment and news; ovens to cook food; and refrigerators to keep food fresh. But what do people need computers for?
A home appliance should be easy to use. For example, you can pick up a phone, dial seven numbers, and reach another person within seconds. You can push a button on a TV, and the world enters your living room. You can pull down a lever on the toaster oven and get a hot biscuit.
When you turn on the computer, it says, "READY." But it is not really ready. First you must load in additional software, turn on additional appliances (disk drives, a printer, a modem, etc.), answer questions, and type in additional information. All these cumbersome, time-consuming steps make the computer ready, but they do not make it easy to use.
How do people learn how to use computers?
They might join a user group, ask a kid, or read a computer magazine.
A magazine like COMPUTE! can be a lifesaver for the consumer who has just bought an inexpensive computer. The magazine offers easy-to-read tutorials, practical tips, and lots of excellent, affordable software.
Kids can also be helpful. So can user groups. But all this is beside the point. The real question is: Should a home appliance be this difficult to use?
To put this question in perspective, ask yourself how many people would own a washing machine if, to operate it, they had to buy a monthly magazine called WASH!, and they had to get help from a washing-machine whiz kid and attend weekly meetings of the Whirlpool User Group?
And how fair is it to our children to assume that they will know how to use a machine that has us puzzled and bewildered?
It is easy for kids to get intimate with computers, because they share few of our fears, anxieties, and prejudices about these machines. But it is not nearly as easy for them to get computer literate—to be competent computer users and programmers. Nevertheless, we adults now have the misconception that all children take to computers as naturally as ducks to water. But what if our children don't take to computers? Does that make them less intelligent or less able than their friends? And where does that leave us?
A Growing Backlash
When millions of people buy a computer, take it home, then discover that it is not going to be inexpensive, that it meets no immediate need, and that it is not always easy to use, how do they feel? Whom do they blame?
Until recently, most people blamed themselves, their families, and their kids. But this is beginning to change. Too many people have been disappointed by computers, and they are talking to their neighbors. The secret is finally out. The fault is not with the consumer. It is with computers themselves—and the companies that make them.
New Consumer Savvy
The computer price wars of 1982–1983 had a disastrous effect on the computer industry and drove many companies out of the market, including Texas Instruments; Mattel, and Timex. In addition, many naive customers were lured by incredibly low prices into buying low-end computers. Unfortunately, the customers had no idea what to do with the computers once they got them home.
However, in spite of these setbacks, the ultimate effect of the price wars may be positive. Between 1982 and 1984, large numbers of people bought "throwaway" computers, became disgruntled consumers, and described their experiences to their neighbors. The result is that, today, people are a lot more knowledgeable about computers than they were just a year ago.
In fact, people's bad experience with computers and their "sour grapes" reaction have created a mild consumer backlash against computers. The average consumer, in mid-1984, is much more skeptical about computers than he was in 1982 or 1983. He realizes that a good price is not the only thing to look for when choosing a computer for the home. He understands that computers, to be useful, need good software, memory, printers, and disk drives. He realizes that even with all this equipment a computer is not a home appliance. On its own it won't guarantee him or his family anything.
The average consumer is returning to the healthier show-me attitude that prevailed before the era of high-tech chic that reigned from 1982 and 1984. "Show me real needs that computers meet," the consumer is saying. "Show me a computer with no hidden costs that is useful and simple to operate."