Farhad Manjoo is critical of Microsoft’s new ad campaign:

But it’s a terrible strategy for the long term. What happens when the economy improves? What happens when young, telegenic people in L.A. can once again spend $1,300 or $1,500 or more for a laptop? What will they do when they hear from Lauren that her $700 machine is grindingly slow and that hauling it around is cramping her acting career? By selling people lots of cheap Windows PCs now, Microsoft risks cementing the idea that PCs are cheap. And in the computer business, “cheap” isn’t an adjective you want to court. Customers may start to think that paying a bit more will get them something better. And when they can afford to pay more, they will.

I really have no idea what he’s basing this on. Dell sells cheap computers and they’re one of the most successful PC producers out there. ThinkPads are good computers and even before the most recent downturn Dell was kicking IBM’s posterior to the point that IBM was losing money and sold the ThinkPad/ThinkCenter line to Lenovo.

Further, let’s look at the fastest-growing component of the laptop market: Netbooks. Netbooks are technologically inferior to laptops in most every way. The processors are weaker and can’t run the latest OSes. The monitors are smaller. The main two advantages are price and convenience, but those seem to be the only advantages that they need. The convenience comes in the form of size and battery life. You can argue that this makes the computer “better”, but I think it’s more likely that the driving factor is price. A television spot pointing out how much cheaper these computers are than their full-blood laptop counterparts would not even remotely be stupid.

The main advantage that PCs have over Mac are… price and convenience. The same as netbooks. And, like netbooks, they’re good enough. Not good enough for me personally, but I am not the average computer user.

Mac people (and Manjoo and McCracken) like to point out that once you count all that’s included with the Macintosh computer, it’s actually not any more expensive than PCs. Sure, but that’s deciding what’s “needed” in a computer based on what the Mac is offering. It’s playing entirely on Apple’s home field. If you need what Mac has to offer, you’re probably better off getting a Mac! But if you don’t need those things, you don’t need to put down the extra money. You don’t need to deal with the inconveniences of using a less commonplace operating system.

Manjoo thinks that Microsoft’s play is that “We’re cheaper” when I think a strong part of that is “We’re all you need and they’re going to take more of your money.” Dell remains successful where Packard Bell and Compaq failed because Dell makes a product that is good enough. Windows, despite its many flaws, does the same. Since the people they’re selling to are people that already own PCs, they know that their audience knows that. Whereas Mac boosters want the computers judged on Apple’s home field, this advertisement plays ball on Microsoft’s. We’re here, we’re fine, and we’re all you need to pay for.

-{Disclaimer: I may or may not be employed by one of the companies mentioned in this article or one of its competitors. Be that as it may, I have no substantial professional stake – even in the shortest of short terms – in the success or failures in the products or companies mentioned}-

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10 Responses to Cheap Sells, Good Enough is Good Enough

  1. Webmaster says:

    -{Disclaimer: half of my maternal family are Mac fans.}-

    Buying a computer is a lot like buying a car.

    There’s a portion of the market that wants an “ooh ahh status symbol” with dozens of bells and whistles and nonsensical things they’ll never use. They want chrome trimmings for no other reason than that they want chrome trimmings. They want their car to “have that XM thing” when they never listen to radio and don’t even know what XM is.

    Apple’s main business model is to rip these people off about every two years or so, much like the “high end” carmakers do.

    Then there’s the portion of the market that wants to customize the heck out of something. They want it EXACTLY as they want it, and if it doesn’t come that way, they’ll alter it to suit. Carmakers have been trying to remove these people from the market entirely in recent years, what with the unreleased diagnostic codes (forcing you to go to the dealership and pay a diagnostic fee just to find out that the “check engine now” light only means it’s time for your 20,000 mile checkup, and making it incredibly difficult to get aftermarket parts for any late-model car). PC makers… well, they’re stuck to a degree. Just about every company that’s tried to do that to customers – again excepting Apple, because Apple’s business model precludes customers who’d want to do that – has been burned (see: Packard Bell, and also the old “proprietary” Dell power supplies that swapped a power and ground pin and used to cause nuked motherboards when either the mobo or ps were replaced) and either changed their ways or went out of business.

    Then there are the normal customers. In a computer, they want “good enough” to run Application X, Y, and Z. In a car, they need 4 wheels, an engine, a radio (ipod connection optional and heck, replacing the radio is all of $100 at most big-box electronics stores) and down by Colosse, working air conditioning. They’re not going to plunk down an extra $500-1000 for a computer, or an extra $10k or more for a car, just to have those things. “Normal customers” comprise at least 90% of the market.

    MS has to make a show of taking on Apple for their shareholders, but really, is Apple any competition for them? I doubt it. 90% of the market isn’t going to pay a price premium for the Apple name. 5% of the market is going to stay away from Apple products because you can’t customize them for beans, let alone build your own box (without stepping into hideous realms of illegality and butchering OSX). And 5% of the market, well, is obsessed with the “status symbol” of having that big shiny apple logo on the side of their box or top of their case, and it really doesn’t matter what MS does or what the comparable features are, they’re going to keep buying Apple.

  2. trumwill says:

    There are two kinds of Apple users. The “old kind” and the “new kind”. Apple’s play used to be “Don’t want to have to learn how to use a computer, buy an Apple!” That they’ve managed to change their reputation from the tech-dumb to the tech-savvy is one of the most remarkable advertising feats I’ve seen in my lifetime.

    I would come to Apple user’s defense, but just the other day I read a comment on the iPhone that said (without any sense of irony) Leonardo DaVinci would be impressed with the iPhone’s design. They deserve the ridicule they get.

    In addition to Packard Bell, Compaq used to require some proprietary parts. The thing is that they would never tell you which. Acer computers used to have an odd power management system that made any foreign hardware you put in there vulnerable to burning out. Dell, on the other hand, still makes parts that aren’t easy to replace but sells the computers inexpensively enough and the computers last long enough that when something irreplaceable does die that most people figure it’s time to get something new anyway. I would never buy a Dell for myself, but it’s probably the perfect computer for my parents.

  3. Webmaster says:

    Working day-in and day-out with Dells, here’s what I’ve found for their units (speaking of the mini-towers here; once you get into “desktop/small desktop” all bets are off because no sane person would try to customize a true home-built system in that way):

    – Motherboard: 50/50. Most of their motherboards are standard ATX spec these days. The new “unfortunate” bit for some of their workstation lines (looking at you, Optiplex) is that they are “upside down” (which actually makes the video board seem “right side up”) and thus not easily replaceable.

    – Processor: If the motherboard supports it (and most of them support a nice, wide range) you can swap just fine.

    – CPU Heatsink/Fan: Forget it. You probably don’t need to, though; most Dell minitowers use a heck of a HSF already set up (80mm fan bolted to the side of a large heat-pipe tower).

    – Power Supply: They’re commodity these days. The fit may be a little tight or even prohibitive in some of the smaller cases if you buy one with an extra fan on the bottom, but that’s true in small-size commercial cases as well.

    – Hard drive: Commodity. Go for it.
    – Optical drive: Commodity. Go for it.
    – RAM: Commodity. Go for it.

    – Video board: go for it with the ONE caveat that boards requiring extra power connectors may need an extra adapter (most of them pull from a standard 4-pin Molex, and the Dell power supplies have gone SATA 15-pin only as of late). Given that a converter from 15-pin SATA to a pair of female 4-pin Molex is only $5, it’s not a big problem.

    – Audio board: still basic PCI. Go for it.

  4. trumwill says:

    We had “small desktops” at Monmark-Soyokaze. Those were a headache and a half to customize worth anything. But they were pretty solidly built in ways that Gateways and Toshibas generally aren’t (or weren’t, anyway).

  5. Webmaster says:

    I can name one “small desktop” line from Dell that are like lemmings… some boob in engineering royally screwed up and put both the hard drive and northbridge heatsink directly behind the main CPU HSF’s waste heat output. Result: in a 3-year warranty period, at least 60% heat-related failures (burned up H/D or burned up mobo). We “gave them away” to other departments once the warranty was done, and 50% of the giveaways have committed hardware suicide in the year and a half since. The rest are not a matter of “if” it fails, but “when.”

    My prediction is that none of them will be in service by this time next year.

    (addendum) almost forgot the other problem with this line: if you put them on their side and put anything larger than a 15″ LCD monitor on them, the case’s side would warp down and begin to exert pressure on the HSF and hard drive cage. After ~4 months, the HSF’s fan housing would warp just enough to jam the fan.

    Guess what happened shortly thereafter?

  6. a_c says:

    You may be right that Microsoft’s comparative advantage is for reliable, unexciting machines. Still, Apple manages to reap huge rents simply by dint of good design and (more importantly) great marketing, and that has got to gall Microsoft shareholders. It’s not really about the prestige of making high-end stuff – utilitarian Japanese carmakers are doing better than Ford’s SUV unit – but rather that on the top end there’s a much better chance to milk customers for essentially comparable machines.

  7. trumwill says:


    I’m not knocking Apple’s marketing. They may only have 10% of the PC market, but they’ve got the 10% you want. If Microsoft wants to get that sector back, this ad is definitely not the way to do it. My sense is, though (and I have no inside knowledge), that they’re mostly trying to stop the bleeding at this point by reminding people why they don’t already own Macs.

  8. Kirk says:

    Is there anything you can do with a Mac that you can’t do with a PC? I’m guessing not.

  9. Barry says:

    Having purchased a couple of Dells in my life and been extremely satisfied with them I’ve come to view their prices and customization options as the de facto “norm” for PC prices in the marketplace.

    In other words, my most recent desktop purchase was two years ago, from Dell. It was a Dimension C521, Athlon 64 X2 4000+ (2.1GHz, 512Kx2). It also came with an option for a sweet, sweet, sweet flat/wide-screen monitor that I’d never had anything quite like before and still betters anything I’ve seen in mainstream PC’s today. Anyway, the price for all that was under $700 – which was a great deal for what I got and to me is about what the average industry price for a PC setup should be.

    A $1,000/$1,500/$2,000 PC desktop (of which I see plenty advertised) now is horribly overpriced and therefore suspect to me. It’s not a sign of quality, but a sign of gouging the unsuspecting consumer, or packing extras that are not needed.

    A similar argument could be made for laptops, adding 25% or so to the base price, but I’ve never purchased nor priced a personal laptop so I have no first-hand knowledge of their price ranges vs. percieved quality.

  10. john says:

    Having used both Macs and PCs in performance-intensive media generation, I’ve found that contrary to Apple propaganda the PCs are more stable. Even when I’m just doing low-intensity regular stuff like e-mail, surfing, et cetera I encounter more problems with Macs. I can only conclude that Apple markets itself on nothing more than “image” and the illusion of superiority. I think that part of what keeps the illusion alive is that many people use “collective” PCs, like at work or the public library, which are inherently more problematic than “personal” computers. I can’t help but wonder if Apple deliberately makes their computers network-incompatible to maintain this situation and hence the illusion of Mac superiority.

    On the subject of overpriced PCs, I must add that certain brands (the kinds you don’t find at Best Buy) do offer added value for the price. Someone who wants a no-hassle computer that will last 5 years or more would be well advised to buy from one of these boutiques.

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