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Personal Opinion: the PC industry model is terribly broken – will anyone step up to the problem?

by Tom Austin  |  October 3, 2009  |  Comments Off on Personal Opinion: the PC industry model is terribly broken – will anyone step up to the problem?

In the movie “Network”, TV anchorman Howard Beale breaks down and tells his audience to go to their windows and scream out “I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take it anymore.” That’s not me. I don’t have to tell anyone to do that. I bet there are millions of people who are already saying it directly to their Windows PC. Daily. Maybe even hourly.

In typical Gartner style, I’ll share the conclusions with you first, then explain the logic. (But understand – this posting is personal opinion and has nothing to do with formal, consensus driven Gartner positions.)

  • Vonage (and others) need to offer foolproof videoconferencing to undercut the internet access providers who are undercutting it with their bundles of Internet access, telephony and cable TV
  • Microsoft has to move past the “pass-the-buck” PC industry model that made them rich – or someone else is going to do it to them, eventually, on the consumer side. We need a new “I take full responsibility” model here.

This is a tale of a few personal woes – and you could probably add to them – woes that befall both professional IT and consumer IT even though my story is based on my consumer IT experiences (and, again, it has nothing to do with official Gartner positions – it’s a personal tale).

My son, daughter-in-law and our two grand children live in Los Angeles. My wife and I live in Boston. Every Sunday, we spend an hour or more on Video Skype, sharing what’s going on in our lives and reveling in the opportunity to get closer. We cherish the video, in particular, because seeing each other (and the grand kids!) does add value. We truly have big-screen (52 inch) portals into each other’s living rooms.

How is the PC business model is broken?

I moved to Boston (from New Hampshire) at the end of 2008. One of the joys of downsizing from 3300 square feet (and three quarters of an acre) to a 2 bedroom, 1200 square foot condo right off the River Charles is the opportunity to outfit a new place (and get rid of 25 years of accumulated detritus).

We bought 90% new furniture, a new TV (52 inch Samsung 1280i HDTV), a new PC to drive it (a Dell Studio HybridTM with slot load Blu-ray drive) as a video telephony box (Skype) and a whole lot more! I hardwired the PC to the Internet (via RCN cable), to the TV as a monitor (via HDMI) and to a Pioneer Audio System (Tuner-Amplifier, etc.).

The Dell machine itself is pretty simple. It’s amply configured and running Vista Ultimate. I have a Logitech video camera (with embedded microphone, a variation on a “QuickCam Communicate” product) perched right on top of the Samsung 52 inch TV and the PC is nestled inside the console on which the TV rests. There’s a Dell wireless keyboard and mouse and an external Hauppauge USB TV tuner attached as well (the RCN cable box and Windows Media software don’t want to work with each other it seems)

PC Audio out goes to the Pioneer Tuner-Amplifier (great for sound when playing movies).

I have Skype installed, as well as a few other odds and ends:

  • iTunes, so I can listen to the radio while waiting for the LA branch of the family to call and know the audio is set right;
  • TV tuner-control software
  • MacAfee AntiVirus
  • Logitech’s video camera software

Pretty darn simple. The machine is for video conversations with the kids and grandkids.

Sunday, 13 September was a day that only Howard Beale could love. I was already dealing with a serious Lenovo X61 Notebook problem – more about that some other day. In preparation for my son’s call, I turn on the PC, switch the TV input and the audio amplifier input, enter my password for the system to start and – ERROR. There is some kind of failure in the Logitech software. It doesn’t load and I get another message from Windows saying there’s a C library problem. I’ve been here before, on many machines, so have we all. Step 1: reboot.

Same result. Now Windows is giving me additional advice. It’s telling me I have to upgrade my Logitech drivers. It even provides me with a link – that dumps me onto Logitech’s home page. First puzzle is navigating menus to find the right support page for the camera I have. (Why doesn’t Vista drop me there automatically if it knows there is a driver problem?)

You would think it’s easy to figure out which Logitech camera I have, right? Wrong. There is no identification on the camera. And the web site has many different models with the same general look. So it’s a guessing game! (Why can’t they figure out what camera you have, especially if it’s connected?)

So I install what I think is the right software – and it’s newer than what I had (which makes me feel good – Windows was right – perhaps). So I download and then have to click a bazillion times and wait for it to install.

(Meanwhile, I am worried that the LA branch of the family is thinking we’re out so we’ll miss our call because of this nonsense.)

Watching what’s going on, I suspect that Logitech is apparently trying to install software that will be an alternative to Skype! I don’t want that. This is frustrating. But it gets worse.

Once the install is done, Skype insists that I have to restart my machine. (Isn’t about time Microsoft made it possible to install anything without having to restart the system?) Given Vista’s fleet of feet reboot cycle (not) and the need to see if the camera is now working, I let it reboot. Start up the Logitech camera software, tell it I want to use Skype and confirm that, at least at a basic level, the camera is indeed functioning.

So we exchange telephone messages and my son calls us and – nothing works, camera wise, inside Skype. So I wound up spending another 10 minutes, during the call, futzing with the options for the camera and then the options for Skype, to get it working. The last change I had to do? Tell Skype, which decided that since the old video camera was no longer logically there, it should now use the video tuner as its video source – that it should instead use the Logitech camera for input.

This whole cycle was ridiculous!

With Vonage – a service I’ve been using for years now – it just works. You can call me and I can call you and the only failures I have are associated with bandwidth problems when I upload huge files from my PC over the same Internet connection. The Vonage box, a modem built by Motorola, works. Period. I don’t have to buy anti-virus software for it (at least not yet). I don’t have crashes. I don’t have to update drivers or deal with conflicts introduced by system or application software updates from various vendors. Vonage works.

Microsoft Windows Vista plus Skype plus a Logitech Camera? This environment is not industrial strength. It’s not consumer strength. It’s a disaster!

Microsoft needs to take more responsibility. So do a lot of other vendors. We’ve forsaken responsibility in the name of progress and profits. The pendulum has swung too far in that direction.

I suspect – but can’t prove – that the Logitech driver was disabled somehow by Microsoft’s automatic updates

  • If Microsoft recognized that the Logitech driver was defective, why wouldn’t it automatically download an upgraded driver?
  • If Microsoft recognized a defective driver was present, why didn’t it warn me before automatically updating whatever it was that broke the Logitech software?

I fault Logitech on several counts.

  • Why can’t their site auto-recognize what devices are present?
  • Why don’t they notify users of upgraded drivers? Why don’t they auto-detect the need to install a new driver?
  • Why don’t they integrate with Microsoft Automatic Update (which I have turned on because of the security it provides)?
  • Why can’t they recognize that I already have Logitech software installed and retain all the same preferences – and not break links to other applications, like Skype?

I’ve been through these issues before, with many vendors. I think the root cause is a defective responsibility model inside the business model.

If I want to use this as a video conferencing tool for the family, it should just work, just like my Vonage box.

That’s it. Someone has to take responsibility to make this stuff work like my audio amplifier. Turn it on and it works. This was working. It stopped working. It was most likely a problem with a Logitech driver (or application) exposed by Microsoft fixing something else. Who should fix this? Me? No. It should not have happened. Period. Microsoft and its top 100 component providers need to work better together. They’re not – witness the Vista driver fiasco.

What we really have here is a failure of the component business model.

The PC business was built primarily by Microsoft shrewdly realizing that they could maximize their profit on the guts of the software (above the BIOS) while pushing hardware competition (and lousy margins) to all the hardware OEMs. That was a great business move in the early 1980’s. Today, the whole premise of multiple parties being responsible for a single product is becoming outlandish. At some point, it has to change. It remains to be seen whether Apple can really step up to the opportunity or not.

Someone has to take full responsibility and not say “gee, the brakes on your car were provided by the XYZ company so you have to go to them to see if there’s a problem there”.

I think we have millions of people out there who screaming at their Windows systems saying “I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take it anymore”. 

Howard Beale would be happy today.

Who’s going to fix this mess?

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Tom Austin
VP & Gartner Fellow
20 years at Gartner
41 years IT industry

Tom Austin, VP, has been a Gartner Fellow since 1997. He drives Gartner's research content incubator (the Maverick Program) and is leading a new research community creating research on the emerging era of smart machines. Read Full Bio

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