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ATPM 5.11
November 1999



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User Preference

by Scott Feldstein,

Buyer Types

Computers suck.

I mean it. In spite of all the advancements made in technology, they’re still just not easy enough for many people to use effectively. Granted, the Macintosh is the best of the bunch in this regard, but we all know perfectly intelligent people who still manage to make a mess of Macs on a regular basis. I hope the future will bring computers that are a lot simpler to use, perhaps by doing fewer things than today’s computers do. Perhaps they won’t even be called computers.

But before a person even gets the privilege of being baffled by his computer he has to travel an even darker journey—actually selecting a new machine. All that mumbo jumbo—“gig-a-megs” and “hertz-a-flops”—I mean, forget it! Ever try explaining these things to your mother? Heck, I know people who make a good living in the computer industry who still don’t understand the specifications on a new computer box.

What’s a would-be computer buyer to do?

I’ll tell you. Forget the specifications. Just forget them. The computer itself is not important. What’s important is the user. How many computer salespeople ask you what your “specifications” are? Not many I’ll bet. Down with computers, I say! Up with users!

Bearing that battle cry in mind, let’s talk more about selecting and buying a computer. Without paying the slightest bit of attention to the arcane numbers and mysterious techno-babble on the sides of the box, let’s figure out how to buy a computer based on the user alone. That’s all we need to know.

The way I figure it, there are only four types of computer buyers. If you can determine which buyer type you are, then the computer that’s right for you becomes almost instantly apparent.

The first type of buyer is a very common one today. In fact, I predict that more and more people will be of this type in the future. It’s simply the fastest growing type out there. Long-time computer users and really geeky people have a hard time understanding this type, but that’s of little consequence. Nerds the world over may shake their heads in disapproval, but despite this the “short-term” buyer types are changing the face of the industry.

So what is the “short-term” buyer type? This is the buyer whose needs are modest and who only wants to spend a little bit of money on a computer. She realizes, of course, that there are drawbacks to this strategy. She knows, for example, that in a few short years the computer she bought will no longer be able to run the latest and greatest software at rocket speed. A couple of inexpensive upgrades may help a bit, but the machine is past its prime. “But what the heck,” says the short-term buyer. “I only paid a little for the machine to begin with. I think I’ll just let the kids have it and go buy a new one.”

And so, looking back on her purchase with high satisfaction and no resentment, she does just that. I mentioned before that “techies” often don’t understand this type of buyer. This is evidenced by the unexpectedly large number of technically savvy Mac users who declare the iMac unfit for human consumption. They just don’t understand that “short-term” is a perfectly sound buying strategy for a growing number of people. And this growing multitude wants iMac and iBook!

The second type, the “long-term” buyer, is a more complex beast but one that technically inclined users are likely to understand right away. He doesn’t balk at $2,000 or even higher price tags. Why is he willing to put up this kind of green for a new computer? Almost always it’s for one of the following two reasons, if not both.

The first reason is longevity. He spends big to stave off obsolescence for as long as possible. He realizes that one of the benefits of spending a great deal of money on a computer is that it’ll perform adequately for years to come. To be sure, upgrading the machine at certain intervals sometimes helps this along—a video card here, a processor upgrade there. He knows that while he paid a premium price for the machine, it’ll age gracefully and live a long, useful life if properly cared for.

The other reason that the “long-term” type is willing to part with all that money may be that he simply requires state-of-the-art performance the day he opens the box. Thus, what I’m calling the “long-term” type of buyer could just as easily be called the “Photoshop freak.” Put simply, he needs the maximum number of horses under the hood, either because he’s a professional who uses Photoshop and other demanding applications or because he’s a rabid gamer who simply cannot continue living unless he has the best gaming experience money can buy. And as I said previously, sometimes the “long-term” buyer has both of these reasons in mind. He will almost surely spurn the modest specs of the iMac and lust instead for the Power Mac G4.

On the sad day when the “long-term” buyer realizes his machine isn’t cutting it anymore, a sentiment like, “I spent a lot of money on ol’ Bessie back then, but she just isn’t what she used to be,” will enter his mind. “Still,” he’ll muse fondly, “I got a lot of good years out of her.” Thus when he finally puts “ol’ Bessie” out to pasture, he does so without regret.

This brings us to the third type of computer buyer. While the first two types have perfectly valid strategies for buying a new computer, this type does not.

This buyer, whom I dub “the mis-matched,” is far less likely to be pleased with her purchase. Put simply, she is a “long-term” buyer or “short-term” buyer who purchases as if she were the opposite type. Consider a buyer who purchases an iMac, yet expects that in five years the machine will still pick up Photoshop 9.8 and shake it like a rag doll. It’s not gonna happen folks. Similarly, a person whose needs were modest and yet purchased a 500 MHz Power Mac G4, may not be very pleased later about having spent all that money.

“The mis-matched” is a sad buyer, really. Had she only known what type of buyer she was to begin with she might have made a more personally satisfying choice. Don’t let this happen to you or yours. User, know thyself!

Some of you wise ATPM readers may be pounding your fists right about now and insisting that things aren’t as simple as I’ve made them out to be. Buying a computer can be a significant investment, after all, and would-be buyers should have more in their arsenal than a working knowledge of my silly “types.”

And I won’t argue. You’re right. The more knowledge a buyer has, the more likely she will be happy with herpurchase. Technical knowledge about the computers themselves is certainly not valueless, and the “mumbo jumbo" in the pamphlets next to the in-store demo may be very helpful information. But even the deepest understanding of these things is no substitute for knowing what you want from your computer. Knowing specs up and down won’t guarantee a satisfied owner. It’s high time buyers and retailers alike acknowledge this fact.

Still other sharp readers may be pounding their fists for a different reason—the fact that I still haven’t told you what the fourth buyer type is. Have you guessed already? This type of buyer causes me perhaps the most personal regret. I call him “the lost one.”

This is the buyer who bought a PC when he might have been so much happier with a Macintosh.

apple “User Preference” is copyright © 1999 Scott D. Feldstein, Scott D. Feldstein is a full-time techie at Marquette University where he also a graduate student in educational psychology.

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