Why I won't buy a so-called cost efficient computer

by Francois Joseph de Kermadec

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 ?


2004-05-12 04:18:01
I have a "cost efficient" computer...

It stays cost efficient, because spending money IS NOT an option...

If you decide to do it for free, you can and keep it free...

My computer software is free and stays free, though I do choose to donate to MandrakeClub...

And I share free software..

You CAN keep it cheap...



2004-05-12 06:10:52
You've got point (but a wrong one)
Cost effectiveness is a relative concept. From the enduser point of view it *might* mean buying an OEM PC with a open source OS on it which is not a bad idea at all if the OEM PC is a working one.

However from enterprise IT point of view, it means dropping that propriety UNIX hardware in favor of Intel based architecture running open source Unix like OS.

Yes I'd love to have a fat server with RISC based architecture for running multiple server instances of *free OS* for a banking application but can the desicion maker afford to pay ten times more for extra memory, ten times more for extra disks and ten times more for upgrades and maintenance, disregarding the fact that the machine will eventually become EOL in a couple of years.

Not being locked to a single vendor and having the *option* to switch vendors. That is what I call cost effectiveness. Didn't the largest online shop of the world do the same thing? Didn't the largest search engine of the world do the same thing? It is all about having options whether you are a consumer or an enterprise CIO

2004-05-12 07:35:04
Time is money . ..
I guess your time isn't worth much.


2004-05-12 08:23:57
I have a "cost-efficent" computer
Unfortunately for your point, it is a Mac.

You appear to be railing against an article that suggests you do the cheapest thing, incorrectly and a without evidence suggesting that this would be the most 'cost-efficient' approach too.

The most fuel efficient car isn't simply the one that uses the least fuel, it's the one that goes furthest on a given amount (or alternatively uses the least fuel to go the distance you require).

Having said that I strongly support the use of Free (as in Freedom) Software and commodity hardware in enterprise and recognize the cost saving that they represent. I'm just not sure cheap white box PCs are the key to major savings.

2004-05-12 08:36:18
I have a "cost-efficent" computer
« I'm just not sure cheap white box PCs are the key to major savings. »

We seem to agree ! :-)


2004-05-12 08:43:52
You've got point (but a wrong one)
Hi !

First of all, thanks for your feedback, I really do appreciate it ! :-)

Cost effectiveness indeed is a relative concept.

I am afraid that we are talking about two slightly different concepts here -- would it not be the case, please accept my apologies.

My goal in this blog was to criticize the current trend of sacrificing quality and planning in the name of "free software", "free hardware" and "no vendor lock-in", that seems to be pushed by the mass media.

Of course, I can appreciate why a vendor would want not to depend entirely on a manufacturer or developer to run its business and I think that, in many cases, open source applications can be the best choice.

However, I also think it is possible for a company to buy what is sometimes seen as "proprietary" solutions and remain free, provided that these solutions are selected with care. Since I am mainly a Mac user, allow me to take a Mac-related example : Mac OS X server, that ships with XServes, is built on open source solutions that allow a vendor to integrate it in an environment without becoming "dependent" on Apple. At the same time, it has all the advantages I mentioned in this blog, which only Apple can provide.

I hope this answers your questions and concerns. Thanks again for your feedback !


2004-05-12 09:11:41
I just want to echo the previous sentiments that "cost effective" or "cost efficient" is one thing -- CHEAP is another. This article is more a manifesto against cheap computers which elevate raw price above all else -- including not only quality but also TCO (total cost of ownership) or net costs of use. When evaluating the costs of purchasing new computer systems, many corporations look only at the front side of the equation and are easily susceptible to sticker shock. These corporations invariably fall prey to the so-called "cheap" alternatives which ultimately are not so cheap at all. Cost-benefit analyses have now become a quaint practice, having devolved into mere "cost analyses" and then having further devolved into price analyses.

I think now also of the mindless trend among American corporations to outsource development to India. A recent New York Times article makes the case that ultimately this is actually more costly than not -- but this is a hard sell to any party which looks only at the up-front costs and fails to consider what they actually GET for their money. Oscar Wilde spoke of people who knew the price of everything but the value of nothing -- I think this is the perfect characterization for most corporations today.

Thank you for an interesting and provocative article.

2004-05-12 09:15:14
Hi !

I agree with you that "cheap" and "cost efficient" is not the same. I am using "cost efficient" somewhat jokingly in the title and should probably have included quotes.

Sorry if I have been unclear !

Thank you for the kind words, I really do appreciate them ! :-)


2004-05-12 09:19:02
Slight blog update
Hi all !

Thank you very much for your feedback, I really do appreciate it !

I have slightly changed the title of this blog. The contents should not have been altered.

Thanks again !


2004-05-13 01:37:24
Endless hours dealing with spyware, viruses
A cheap Windows XP computer is not so cheap anymore when you have to spend countless hours updating security patches, running anti-virus/ad/spyware programs to clean it. I cannot tell you how much time I have spent cleaning my husband's computer (Windows). I don't have to do this with my iMac, although I do have anti-virus software on it and hide behind a firewall. He is now seriously thinking of getting a Mac because I told him I have no time to deal with this Windows nonsense.
2004-05-13 07:11:41
Endless hours dealing with spyware, viruses
Also if they don't have an ADSL/cable connection how many people are going to be able to download those huge patches ? No fun with a modem ..
2004-05-15 06:29:25
You've got point (but a wrong one)
Indeed it does. Esspecially the new Mac model is a very and very good example of using open source to augment IT business. I still remember the old days with all UNIXes being proprietary but claiming openness and cost effectiveness.

Thanks for the response.