Picking the right tech isn’t always about the specs

I have been working in tech for close to 40 years, yet it took me until this week to realize an important truth: we have too many choices and too much tech in our lives, both personal and work. So much of the challenges about tech is picking the right product, and then realizing afterwards the key limitations about our choice and its consequences. I guess I shouldn’t complain, after all, I have had a great career out of figuring this stuff out.

But it really is a duh! moment. I don’t know why it has taken me so long to come to this brilliant deduction. I am not complaining, it is nice to help others figure out how to make these choices. Almost every day I am either writing, researching or discussing tech choices for others. But like the barefoot shoemaker’s children, my own tech choices are often fraught with plenty of indecisions, or worse yet, no decision. It is almost laughable.

I was involved in a phone call yesterday with a friend of mine who is as technical as they come: he helped create some of the Net’s early protocols. We both were commiserating about how quirky Webex is when trying to support a multiple-hundred conference call. Yes, Webex is fine for doing the actual video conference itself. The video and audio quality are both generally solid. But it is all the “soft” support that rests on the foibles of how we humans are applying the tech: doing the run-up practice session for the conference, notifying everyone about the call, distributing the slide deck under discussion and so forth. These things require real work to explain what to do to the call’s organizers and how to create standards to make the call go smoothly. It isn’t the tech per se – it is how we apply it.

Let me draw a line from that discussion to an early moment when I worked in the bowels of the end-user IT support department of the Gigantic Insurance company in the early 1980s. We were buying PCs by the truckload, quite literally, to place on the desks of the several thousand IT staffers that until then had a telephone and if they were lucky a mainframe terminal. Of course, we were buying IBM PCs – there was no actual discussion because back then that was the only choice for corporate America. Then Compaq came along and built something that IBM didn’t yet have: a “portable” PC. The reason for the quotes was that this thing was enormous. It weighed about 30 pounds and was an inch too big to put in the overhead bins of most planes.

As soon as Compaq announced this unit (which sold for more than $5000 back then), our executives were conflicted. Our IBM sales reps, who had invested many man-years in golf games with them, were trying to convince them to wait for a year before their own portable PC could come to market. But once we got our hands on an IBM prototype, we could see that Compaq was a superior machine: First, it was already available. It also was lighter and smaller and ran the same apps and had a compatible version of DOS. We gave Compaq our recommendation and started buying them in droves. That was the beginning of what was called the clone wars, unleashing a new era of technology choices to the corporate world. After IBM finally came out with their portable, Compaq already had put hard drives in their model so they stayed ahead of IBM on features.

My point in recounting this quaint history lesson is to point out something that hasn’t changed in nearly 40 years: how tech reviews tend to focus on the wrong things, which is why we get frustrated when we finally decide on a piece of tech and then live with the consequences.

Some of our choices seem easy: who wants to pay a thousand bucks for a stand to sit your monitor on? Of course, some things haven’t changed: the new Macs also sell for more than $5000. That is progress, I guess.

My moral for today: looking beyond the specs and understand how you are eventually going to use the intended tech. You may choose differently.

5 thoughts on “Picking the right tech isn’t always about the specs

  1. Not only for technology – but the whole consumer space is overwhelmed with choices. It’s to the point where it’s paralyzing.

    Interesting that you mention WebEx – I was reading your article right after getting a demo from “LoopUp” which is a regular old Audio Conferencing Co that’s trying to make it all easier. They might have something.

    On to the next review!

  2. Compaq was a late comer. Remember the Osborne. My first “PC” was a Columbia Data IBM clone. The demand was so high, they were air-freighting the computers from Taiwan to the US.

    But Compaq was definitely at the front of technology. I wrote the first reviews the Compaq 386 was the first to use ASIC chips. Also reviewed the first portable to use an LED-type display, and the weight got below 10 pounds.

    The people who pay $1,000 for a monitor stand are the same ones who drive a Porsche Cayenne because they want an SUV and they want to be cool. Or the guy on my street – in New Orleans – who has both a Bentley SUV and an Aston Martin.

    And I worked for a companies in the mid-80’s that set up video conferencing centers for large, extravagant organizations, like law firms. You had to book both ends of the circuit at least a week ahead. And there were two technicians on each end to ensure that it all worked.

    Yes, there have been some changes.

  3. It’s not just the specs and the price. Buyers have to ask what they are really getting for their money, and exactly what is being delivered. One of my clients recently asked me about the value of moving their cloud-based VPN from a nearly defunct version of Windows Server to the latest sparkling and wonderful version. Yes, they have to do it sometime, so my response was a list of questions to ask about what they were getting in terms of assistance during transition, length of transition, documentation provided (previous documentation from vendor had to be rewritten by me to be accurate, complete and understandable by a non-tech person), telephone assistance provided, especially for workers remote from the main office. Too often, buyers snap up the lowest price unquestioned.

  4. Thanks for sharing your recent newsletter. I think I have been on your list now for at least 15 years. I remember purchasing my first computer in the mid 80’s at Radio Shack for around $4200. There was no such thing as a mouse and everything ran on DOS commands. I remember in the early 90’s learning HTML and posting my first web page and marveling about the internet. It’s fun to reminisce and look back on how far technology has come. I have pretty much given up on keeping up on the latest and greatest and learn just enough now to get by. Thanks again for the many years of sharing technology with us.

  5. “… involved in a phone call yesterday with a friend of mine who is as technical as they come: …”
    Nathaniel, Einar or Marshall??

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