Tuesday, January 15, 2008

New and Improved! Now with less stuff!

A new PC showed up today. I’m looking at it across the office over by the coffee table. I’m not sure if it’s the new test box or the new dev box – I haven’t opened it yet. But I do know it’s a new Dell Vostro. Under the “Key Features” for the Vostro, Dell lists the following:

  • Designed with standard tools and services to simplify technology management for businesses without dedicated IT support

  • Features no trialware and a 30-day money back guarantee

  • Comprehensive standard Small Business services

Emphasis mine. The marketing person writing up the sales literature get’s three bullet points to sell the product, and one of them is “no free trialware.” Well, okay, they cheated a little by combining that with “30-day money back guarantee” but still, one of the top selling points is they didn’t install a bunch of stuff. On the product page they’re even more blunt. The first topic is:

No trialware.
Customers said they hated trialware, so we took it away. Vostro systems come without annoying trialware pre-installed. You only get the software you want.

Yes, customers hate that stuff. Most of it goes unused, but still manages to get in the way, either during OOBE (Out-Of-Box-Experience, which is not what happens to the computer during a near-death experience, but rather what happens to the person who just bought said computer the first time they turn it on), or every other time you boot, until you get frustrated enough to go hunt it down and uninstall it.

“Now, hold on a minute”, I hear a few of you saying. “Why would Dell (and HP, and, well, everyone) put trialware on there if customers hated it. Didn’t they do any research first?”

Maybe, but they didn’t put that stuff on their because they thought customers might want it. They put it on there because the makers of the trialware paid them to do it. Trialware is an advertising scheme. AOL, Google, McAfee, etc., think that if they can get trial versions of their products on your PC, that you’re more likely to spring for their pay versions. And of course, in one sense, they’re right. Try-before-you-buy is a pretty good sales model. But the downside of advertising is that it is always clamoring for attention, and attention is becoming a precious commodity that people don’t like to give away. When a mutli-hundred, or even mutli-thousand dollar purchase assaults you with advertising before you can put it to use, well, no wonder people hate it.

PC makers have to get by on razor thin margins. Pocketing a few dollars from the trialware makers helps keep them above water. But I think that’s a very short term solution. Finding yourself in a commodity market is no fun, but turning your main product into an ad vehicle doesn’t strike me as a great solution. The traditional response to a commodity market is to break out of it by differentiating your product. In a good way, that is. So that you can charge a premium because it’s better than the others.

Michael Dell mentioned support costs when he introduced the Vostro line. Trialware drive up support costs. I used to work at this big software company with enormous profit margins. For one particular product we sold, we made about $40 profit per box. The average support call cost us just under $30. One, just one support call from a customer nearly wiped out all our profit from that sale. Two support calls and we were in the red. Two calls, followed by “I give up, I’m returning this piece of junk because it doesn’t work right” would really hurt. Luckily we didn’t have very many support calls, but I never forgot that lesson. Quality makes a financial impact in more places than you might imagine. It’s worth a lot more than a few pennies.

Even though Vostro’s have been out a few months, it’s not too late for me to applaud Dell for this, right?. So now, if you’ll excuse me, I need to go set up my new toy.



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