Few gadgets better symbolise the state of late 20th century Britain than the teasmade. This unlovely device wakes you up when you'd rather be asleep by playing a tinny transistor radio that is impossible to tune, then thinks it has done you a favour by peeing tepid tea into a floral mug and mixing it with some milk that has been going sour since the previous evening.
The hi-tech equivalent of the teasmade is that jack-of-all-trades, the Wash & Go of the PC peripheral market - the all-in-one device. This is based on the wizard wheeze that, if you combine a printer, scanner and modem, you can sell unsuspecting customers a single product that meets all their computing needs and doubles as a photocopier and fax to boot.
The first problem is that all-in-one devices have no decent acronym.
An AIOD sounds like a component from a valve radio set, so I shall call it the teasmade instead. At least that won't sound threatening to its target market of suckers - I mean, home users and small businesses.
There are several even worse problems. One is that instead of four or five devices, you can only sell customers one. A single purchase gives them more time to do some research, shop around, and ask awkward questions.
They will also expect you to support half-a-dozen functions for the price of one product. Your only hope is to claim when they call that these functions are handled by half-a-dozen engineers and the one they need is drunk, sick or otherwise unavailable.
The makers can't even decide what these infernal boxes should do. We all know that printers print, scanners scan, and faxes fax. But some teasmades can fax, some can't, some can fax but not send emails, others can send faxes from paper but not from PC files. Some can print in colour but copy only in black and white. How is anyone supposed to understand the market?
The biggest problem, though, is that of expectation. Corporate customers know computers are an expensive nuisance and that however much they spend on kit, they will spend even more to keep it running. But small businesses and home users believe the makers' claims that teasmades can be installed and operated by the average two-year-old. Tell them you have a single machine that will meet all their needs for #400 and they will never buy anything at a realistic mark-up again.
There are only two tatters of a silver lining behind this particular cloud. First, some startup businesses buy their all-in-one device as a standalone copier/fax, then decide to buy a PC later and connect them together. So, having sold them the teasmade, you could subsequently make a pitch for the whole bedroom. And second, if any of the components go wrong, the user will have to throw the whole damn thing away and buy another one - or else revert to the IT equivalent of a tea bag and a kettle.
q Paul Bray is a freelance IT journalist.
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