I just ordered a notebook computer from one of the largest PC suppliers (who will remain nameless). The machine was perfect in every way except for one thing – it had Microsoft Windows XP Home Edition, although the request was made to the person making the order for the Professional edition. It was ordered with Home edition in error, but the omission was missed in the initial order review. When the error was caught the next day, an attempt was made to amend the order. Even though the machine was not due to be built for another week, I was informed that it was impossible to change the order (curiosity #1).
Doing what any self-respecting IT professional would do, I decided to obtain a license for XP Pro and would upgrade the machine when it arrived. Fast-forward to the receipt of the notebook…On performing the upgrade, the process stopped at a point where “there was an incompatibility of one of the hardware components with Windows XP,” according to the Microsoft Knowledge Base. Curiosity #2 – how could a machine that had XP Pro as an option be incompatible with XP Pro?
Long story short, after talking to a half-dozen people at the manufacturer, the only solution was to return the unit and re-order the machine with the correct operating system. Huh? There’s no better way to fix it than that?!? This is something that’s amazed me for years, although I understand the economics of it – it’s cheaper to replace something than to fix it. That goes against all of the training I received from a Depression-era father, but there we are.
Welcome to the world of the oligopoly*. One of the effects of this corporate structure is that products become more proprietary – even those that once were open systems. Dell and Hewlett Packard have just about eliminated all competition in the Windows-based PC market over the past five years through supply efficiencies and contracts with the largest corporations. I think we’re seeing an effect of this – the “non-upgradable PC” – which was antithetical to the main reason why the IBM PC took off – its open platform.
Now, the moral of the story: Openness is messy and time-consuming, but it’s necessary to a thriving economy…or government…or society. Large organizations in control is more efficient (for the organization), but what do we give up in return?
* For you non-economists, an oligopoly is a market where there are few suppliers but many product variants, so from the outside, it looks competitive but acts much more like a monopoly, with the lack of choice and price controls inherent in the structure. For the economists out there, I know this is oversimplification, but the definition works for our discussion today.