Perhaps it's a mark of the title's success that it feels relaxed enough to talk the language of the shopfloor, rather than stick to matter-of-fact reports about store openings and product launches. Perhaps, though, the industry as a whole is moving downmarket, in an effort to sell more home PCs.
I write this without any kind of sorrow or sarcasm. There's little doubt that PC manufacturers need to shed the bland middle-of-the-road image that they've created for themselves, if they want to create a mass market for their products. Just selling to a bunch of smiling scrubbed white Anglo Saxon Blokes in Next sweaters (or ASBINS), as depicted in many a magazine ad, wasn't going to keep the home computing revolution going forever.
Slowly it's dawning on us that we all have to allow for a lot more market segmentation, and, in order to do that, the products have to have more individual character. That means moving away from the safe ground of the standard package; in other words, moving either up or down market - or even both.
Two quotes from the last issue of CRN sum up this point nicely. First, analyst James Bates of Context: "Outlets pushing grey boxes will find the market slow, while those that understand consumerism will be able to capitalise on a major market opportunity."
Second, Graham Hopper, general manager of AST UK: "Manufacturers can no longer afford to offer UK consumers a PC that is a Jack of all trades and a master of none."
In both cases, the underlying message is: give the people what they want, at a price they can afford. But what do people really want? Do they want the cheeky cheery Sun, or the heavy highbrow Financial Times? Do they want CRN, or that other trade title beginning with C that we're not allowed to mention?
Yes, of course. They want it all now, for nothing. Above all, what people want is choice. They want cheap and cheerful, followed by expensive and luxurious, followed by slow and dependable, followed by racy and risky, or all at once depending on circumstances.
The mystery is quite how a single computer retailing format is going to support all these different customer needs at the same time.
In my business just this week, for example, I've needed to order a sub-u1,000 Pentium with 16Mb RAM to be delivered within 24 hours, a top quality Windows NT 4 server and a desktop machine capable of running multimedia applications and surfing the web at speed, without crashing too often (yes, business is good, if a little stressed).
It's a telling point that, in the end, I had to go to three different suppliers to get what I wanted; Tottenham Court Road's Carrera for an extremely good value P100, ready for collection within four hours; Hewlett Packard, via a Var, for a quality NT server; Dell for the high-spec multimedia PC. In other words, I couldn't find a consumer-friendly computer retailer who could help me out with my needs.
The retailer offerings I did look at were either under-specced or overpriced for what I needed; the Jacks of all trades that Hopper of AST was talking about. And more frustrating still, I couldn't find a member of staff who could talk sensibly about how changing a machine's configuration might affect the price - a fairly standard requirement, you might think, in this age of "understanding consumerism".
In short, none of the retailers were "downmarket' enough to match Carrera's DIY approach, or "upmarket" enough to compete with the likes of HP on the server front. They were somewhere in the middle - not bad offerings, but not quite good enough. Neither consumer friendly, nor techie enough.
It's not hard to see why this is. For manufacturers, either routes away from the safe middle ground have their difficulties. Going downmarket to match the prices and swift turnaround of the Carreras of this world, has implications in terms of brand image and consistency of manufacture.
Above all, it makes you a hostage to your component suppliers when it comes to product pricing, which, given the current roller-coaster ride going on in the CD-ROM drives and P120 chip market, is an important consideration.
Going upmarket is even harder. It means that you're trying to convince people to pay more for a home computer, in a market where the expectation is that prices should be getting lower and lower. It is not, though, impossible.
Hewlett Packard, for example, seems to think that by adding value and targeting specific user groups it can still persuade people to part with the best part of two and half grand for a Pavilion PC.
And who is it that is asking gamers to pay u1,799 for a machine complete with 3D graphics, DSVD and joystick? Why it's good old Graham Hopper of AST.
Now what's he doing in a downmarket publication like CRN?
Tim Wright is editorial director of NoHo Digital, an independent multimedia company.
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