'Bargain' computer deal may end up costing lots

Personal computer

November 12, 1990|By Michael J. Himowitz

Fred had a small business, and he'd thought he'd been doing just fine without computers.

But his secretary complained that the mailings were taking her longer and longer. His bookeeper said that if he didn't get some help--or some automation--he was going to quit.

Fred doesn't like to part with a dollar, but he saw the handwriting on the wall. So he went to a computer show looking for a bargain. He bought a couple of the cheapest IBM clones he could find.

Unfortunately, his secretary and bookkeeper didn't know exactly what to do with them. But they told him he'd need something called software to make them work.

So Fred called his brother-in-law, whose kid was a computer genius. The kid came over and installed some pirated word processing and accounting programs he'd picked up at the last meeting of the Hackers' Club.

The kid didn't know much about the software and didn't have any manuals. Anyway, he had to leave for summer camp two days later.

When Fred called the software companies for help, he couldn't get it because he'd never registered the programs. He couldn't register since he hadn't paid anything for them. When he found out it would cost him $1,000 to get legitimate copies for both machines, he nearly had a fit.

Meanwhile, his employees weren't having much success, either. After a couple of weeks of tinkering (while the mailings didn't go out and the outgoing bills were delayed), they were ready to give up.

Then both computers broke. So Fred called the dealer, the Universal International Computer Center. This turned out to be a guy who barely spoke English working out of a garage 200 miles away. No problem, he said, just ship the computers back to me.

So Fred packed up the computers and shipped them back--at his own expense. When they were returned three weeks later, one of them still didn't work. Fred had to ship it back again. This time it came back with the package marked, "Addressee Unknown." UICC was out of business.

There he was, stuck with $3,000 worth of useless equipment. He and his employees had lost weeks of work, and he had nothing to show for it. A real bargain.


Across town, at a much bigger company, Bill was having a different problem in his data processing department. When times were good and someone in the company need a computer, he just called up his friendly IBM dealer and had one delivered.

Bill didn't like PC's much and didn't know much about them. He was a mainframe guy. When staffers suggested that he might get more computers for the same money--or the same computing power for less money--by switching to lower-priced compatibles, he told them to mind their own business. He knew that nobody ever got fired for buying IBM.

Bill didn't mind paying top dollar. Neither did top management, which didn't know much about computers anyway and figured that if the stuff said IBM, it must be okay.

Then the economy turned sour. Profits were down and everybody's budget took a beating, including Bill's.

But people were still demanding PC's. Some of them even had an idea of what PC's cost in the open market. They started to get angry when Bill told them he didn't have $5,000 for a system when they knew where to get good quality equipment for half the price.

Meanwhile, the guys at headquarters were suddenly looking over Bill's shoulder. They wondered by Bill's division was paying so much more for computers than another division that bought compatibles.

These scenarios are being played out every day, as businesses of all kinds struggle with the issues of installing personal computers.

Small businesses are discovering that the real cost of computing is much higher than they thought. They're learning that support and training are just as important as price.

The critical question in any computer purchase is, "What am I actually buying?"

From a hardware standpoint, it doesn't really matter what brand of IBM-compatible you buy today. Computers have become commodities. Hardware compatibility is no longer an issue. Anyone with a screwdriver can put together a workable IBM clone of decent quality.

When you select a machine today, you're buying a certain amount of computing power. You decide what kind of speed, storage, video display and networking capability you need. The box you finally get may have components from a half-dozen manufacturers, tailored to give you that level of performance.

The important question is what kind of support you need to make the computers do what you want them to do.

If you have a staff of technicians and computer personnel, all the vendor has to do is deliver the boxes to your door in working order.

Unfortunately, that's not the case in most small businesses. More often than not, there's no one around who knows anything about computers.

A vendor who's willing to come in and set up your machines, install the software and service them on-site is worth the premium you'll pay.

Moreover, you must be willing to invest in training your employees--and yourself. Full-service computer retailers and local colleges offer courses in most common programs. Many will even come to your door.

It's not cheap, and you must give your people time to learn how to use the software. No baby ever emerged fromt he womb knowing how to use WordPerfect.

But the investment will pay off many times over. You'll spend more time running your business, instead of playing computer doctor. And your employees will be putting that computing power to work for you.

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