Walt Mossberg

Computer Makers Cater to Big Business, Slight the Rest of Us

If you went to work this morning and sat down at your desk in front of a personal computer, your experience probably took one of two routes.

Lots of you found yourself logging in, probably multiple times, using passwords you could barely remember because you are forced to change them so often. Then, you entered a world of computing where much of the power and variety of the technology was closed off to you in the name of security or conformity by an information-technology department in your large corporation or organization. Various Web sites were off-limits, as were tools like instant messaging, even though they might have legitimate business purposes.

Others of you, lucky enough to work in a home-based business or in any business or organization too small to have an IT department, could get right to work, using the full range of changing resources and tools offered by software and Internet companies.

So, which of these worlds is the computer industry’s favorite? If you guessed that the industry cares most about customers who use all it has to offer and are most willing to try new things, you guessed wrong. The computer industry cares little about consumers and very small businesses. It is focused on serving the IT departments of large corporations and organizations.

This is true even though, by some estimates, twice as many computers are in the hands of individuals and very small organizations than are in the control of corporate IT departments.

Sure, big computer makers such as Dell and Hewlett-Packard make and sell “consumer” models with lots of whiz-bang features. But they really focus on corporate customers and jump to the tune of IT managers. Dell recently folded its separate consumer division in the U.S., conceding that only a relatively small slice of its U.S. business is from consumers.

In fact, the industry operates on a false model of the U.S. computer-using population. It imagines the world is divided between “consumers,” who lie around at home playing games and listening to music, with the occasional homework assignment or tax form thrown in; and “enterprises,” large corporations where computing is controlled by IT departments and only mission-critical tasks are performed.

If these models acknowledge small businesses at all, they get lumped into a category called SMB, for small and medium businesses, where the minimum size is something like 500 employees and an IT staff rules.

In fact, the most accurate way to divide the computer-using world is into two segments: the one controlled by an IT department and the one controlled by the people who actually use the computers, be they consumers or small-business folks. A vast amount of business crucial to the U.S. economy is conducted every day in the non-IT part of the computing world.

The computer industry loves, and caters to, the IT segment because it buys machines in large quantities and is run by a geeky priesthood that speaks the industry language. By contrast, the non-IT camp, even though it is larger in the aggregate, buys one, two or three machines at a time and tends to be nontechnical.

A few years back, Dell moved a part of its telephone support overseas. Consumer and corporate customers complained. Dell quietly switched some activity back to the U.S., but only for corporate customers, at least at first.

This focus on the corporate world can have real, and sometimes negative, consequences for consumers and small businesses. For example, some of the big security problems in Microsoft’s software in recent years came because the company included features used only by corporate IT staffs in the products it sold to everyone. One was a communications feature, meant for network administrators, which sleazy operators misused to bombard people with ads. Why was that on my PC in the first place?

Other technology sectors do the same thing. Cellphone carriers, for instance, seem to think noncorporate customers don’t need many phones with decent email software.

Only one major computer company focuses mainly on the non-IT part of the computing world: Apple Computer. This is partly because Apple failed to make inroads in corporations, but it’s also because it prefers to aim its products at actual users, not intermediary buyers.

Some of you wonder why reviewers like me, writing for the non-IT part of the world, have consistently praised Apple products in recent years. One reason is that they are good. Another is that they have been unaffected (so far) by the plague of viruses and spyware that makes Windows users miserable. But an underlying reason is the focus on individual users.

There are some small, Windows-based PC companies that sell mainly to the non-IT world. The best example is Alienware; another is eMachines, now part of Gateway. But they tend to cater to narrower markets than Apple. Alienware is aimed mainly at gamers, eMachines at bargain hunters.

In my view, the world would be better off if the biggest computer companies started catering more to the non-IT part of the market, where most computers live.


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