Web Informant #346, 16 October 2003: Dell in the home spells trouble




Dell's announcement last month about offering up new home entertainment products such as digital projectors, music players hooked up to online music services, and LCD TVs doesn't bode well for the consumer or for the consumer electronics industry. The problem has to do with the lack of support and integration of the products. And while the high end audio-video industry will probably get a boost and bounce from Dell's offerings, the rest of the market will muddle through with second-rate products that are difficult to assemble and operate.


This isn't based on any actual experience with Dell product, because Dell hasn't yet begun shipping much of what they announced in this press release.


In fact, finding the release on Dell's Web site wasn't easy: The first place I tried to look brought up a "broken link" page. This isn't a omen of good things to come.


But my comments are based on my actual experience of walking in and out of dozens of homes, trying to get stuff to work. Actually, the real challenge is trying to keep stuff that I got to work to stay up and running weeks and months later.


Here's my mantra: Make it cheap, make it simple, and make it work with the minimum of menus, configuration files and choices. Too bad Dell has just the first part (cheap) down pat. The rest will eventually follow, but in the meantime -- watch out.


If you are a high-end AV installer, you are sitting pretty, provided you can keep your basic hourly labor rate reasonable and don't mind taking a lot of "home user in distress" service calls when they unpack all those boxes from Round Rock and find out something is missing. If you are a network integrator and can bundle the support into your product prices, you might do well too. If you are a teenaged kid that can deal well with people, give up that night shift at McDonalds or forget about cutting lawns: You have a solid source of income for the next few years, at least until you leave town for college and have to fork over the lucrative support contracts with your neighbors to your younger siblings that are still sticking around town.


Want a taste of things to come? Read the Fortune magazine article "Geek Eye for Luddite Guys."


I admit it -- as a magazine editor I am jealous that I didn't think of doing this idea first. The premise is that a group of computer guys try to makeover your average suburban Virginia family room with several thousand dollars' worth of gear, in the spirit of the Queer Eye Show on cable. Their conclusion is that you need a lifetime support contract with one of the geeks, to make sure that you can get all the remote controls programmed and keep everything working. Unlike the personal makeover results and home decorating tips, some things just don't have staying power; no matter how many bucks you pump into someone's living room, you still need to have the guy around to help out when things break.


The trouble is with the intersection of computers and home electronics. I am not talking about the flashing "12:00" on the VCR. That is child's play. The computer stuff is a lot harder to keep stable and constant. The kids download the latest upgrade to peering service StealThisMusic.com, Mom needs an upgrade to her VPN software to connect into work, and Dad wants to load up a new golf simulator that by the way needs a better video card and more RAM to run. It is a constantly shifting moving target, not helped by the latest worm running around the Internet that is infecting everyone's hard disk. Imagine that media center PC switching to channel V, for virus, and going dark.


But it doesn't have to be even that insidious. In the households that I try to keep their networks running, it is a running battle. An adult (it is usually the adults, although they often try to pin the blame on the kids) unplugs the router, or trips over the one of the zillions of cords coming out of the back of the PC, and Something Goes Wrong. A couple of examples:


My daughter calls me in a panic one afternoon. The power flicked out for a few minutes at home, and her PC wasn't booting when the lights came back on. Turns out Grandpa forgot to remove his floppy disk (remember those) from his visit last week, and crisis was resolved with just the push of a button. (Boy did that make me feel great. It is so nice when you can actually bond with your kids over tech support issues that they don't know about. Now if I could just grok Radiohead I would be all set.)


Or how about this: I was over a friend's house yesterday, after a distress call that came in because the home network stopped working. Luckily it was just something unplugged, and I was done in less than five minutes. I don't mind -- it was a nice excuse for a personal visit once we got the computer business out of the way. But these events are far too typical. And no matter how high product quality can be, it isn't gonna be high enough to get around these problems. And even with a portable, personal and willing Strom (or equivalent), you can't be everywhere. And you can't fix these things yourself.


Apple has the best chance of making inroads here, although they aren't even immune from the odd glitch. This week I wanted to sign up for their iTunes Music store. Unfortunately, my task was interrupted when I tried to remember the security code imprinted on the back of my credit card and long since worn out from frequent swiping. Oh well.


But all this home entertainment confusion has another side to it. I think the best opportunity is what I call the revenge of the nerds: those geeky high schoolers that have the know-how and are willing to work for next to nothing, or at least for the price of a case of high-fructose beverages, and can get the job done. These are the new VARs-in-training, the next generation of computer whiz kids, and they are my people. And I am glad. In the meantime, before you buy your Dell Digital Media Extravaganza, start looking around for your own private nerd.


Entire contents copyright 2003 by David Strom, Inc. 

David Strom, dstrom@cmp.com, +1 (516) 562-7151

Port Washington NY 11050

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