Today’s word du jour is “cost efficient”. Everything must be cheap, small and tough. And, since the cheaper it is, the better it gets, we should all be very happy to follow the trend…
You’re right, I am exaggerating a bit… However, the latest push in the mass media for “cheaper solutions” disturbs me somehow — no, not because I love paying more money than I should for something but because I am afraid that, in our quest for the cheapest solution, we are forgetting some of the core values that founded the computing community.
This week, while reading a respected “business” magazine, I found a column explaining to managers that buying computers from companies like Apple, IBM or even Dell was “out”, old-fashioned and simply the worst idea you could have. Instead, companies were to order custom-built devices, on which they should all install a free operating system — the article didn’t specify which one — and push it at every level of the hierarchy…
I seriously do hope that nobody takes such articles too seriously or the companies in question may suffer a great deal… Sure, putting components together and installing a free OS on top of it, whatever it is, may seem like a good idea at first. However, such a piece of advice forgets one extremely important rule : computers are here to be used.
In theory, none of the devices we use is perfect : our cell phones could be twenty times smaller, our laptops could all be replaced by compu-watches and the mice by eye-controlled tracking systems. In fact, we — at least for now — do not rely on such technologies. Why ? Because, even though they are theoretically perfect and efficient, they work against the way we want to work and interact with our devices : your phone needs to be big enough to have a usable keyboard, creating a website on a watch isn’t exactly our idea of convenience and, even though mice need to be changed once in a while, it’s nice to be able to look up through the window while we work without the cursor going crazy on the screen…
The same rule applies to computers as a whole and the way they are designed. Theoretically, every plastic box that does not ignite when components heat up and every operating system that manages I/O correctly can do… But in fact, we still need a computer that holds up to use, does allow for efficient interaction and is sufficiently well conceived to be usable by an average user — true geeks want to use their geekiness to push the envelope, not start a device and connect a USB thumb drive.
Since I am a Mac user, let me take the case of the eMac, that was originally designed for schools. It’s amazingly tough, it features a gorgeous flat screen that avoids glares and is easier on the eye, the ports built into it are placed conveniently on the side for easy access and space-saving, the curve of the enclosure allows for a minimal footprint and optimum airflow while making defacing the computer difficult, its serial number is printed on the inside of the CD tray in both human-readable and machine-readable format and, of course, it runs the wonderful Mac OS X that I do not need to praise any more. The whole circuitry inside is composed of components that were designed and picked to work together to ensure constant and smooth operation. There is of course much, much more to say but this is not an Apple catalog.
Against it stand the “cost efficient” computers recommended by the article I was referring to — no specific model but I have worked with enough “cost efficient” computers in schools to describe them a bit. The case is made of cheap plastic that breaks if you put the manual onto it (I saw it happen), components vibrate into it and make an awful noise that prevents you from working or detach themselves from the mother board, the screen that comes with it (if any) is a good old CRT that flickers and requires drivers written in some language you don’t know, the ports are in the back, right next to the ventilator, so that your connectors get full of dust (or, if there are some in the front, chances are you will get a headphone jack and USB 1.1 port), it’s extremely large since the case wasn’t built for it and the power supply is external… The OS, well… you don’t know what it is but chances are it will be an outdated distribution of Linux that nobody took the time to tailor properly. Of course, it may feature a high-end P-something processor but, to compensate for the price, it is surrounded by cheap components that slow everything down to a crawl and can’t be serviced properly.
On paper, the second computer is more cost-efficient : free software, cheaper to buy, no “vendor lock-in”… But, once you actually use both or even look closely at the specifications, you realize that they both belong to different worlds. I have actually helped a few people whose IT department had bought similar machines and, even though they hold up pretty well for 2 weeks, more money was invested to keep them running that it would have been to purchase a high-end video-editing, Mac-based system — I did the math for fun at the time, when mirrored drive doors PowerMacs were the latest and greatest.
Don’t get me wrong, free software can be excellent (as I have already and will continue to say) and there is a market for throw-away PCs. However, we should not let our passion for cheaper devices make us overlook the fact that cheap does not always equal “better”. Sure, some things are overpriced but not everything is : as a Mac user, I spend less than my PC (i.e. “non-Mac” computer) friends on comparable equipment — that I can actually use for years before I donate it to a charity. Next time someone tells you to buy something, please, do keep this in mind — even if you don’t agree with me.
Until next time, dear Mac users, enjoy thinking different !
And you, have you already suffered from cost-efficient systems ?