03/06/2001

Inexpensive PCs. I want to post something useful before I handle the issue of the day. So here goes.

A longtime friend wrote in wanting some advice on buying an affordable PC. Yesterday’s build-your-own route using closeout components and a Saturday afternoon isn’t realistic for the person he was asking for. (Undoubtedly the issue came up in conversation because he’s pretty computer-savvy, and he said, “Well, my son knows an awful lot about this stuff, and a friend of his writes computer books, so let me see what they have to say.”)

So, what to do when it’s not practical to build your own?

Do the same thing my mom and aunt do and my grandmother used to do when they’re buying anything. Shop around. I still have nightmares in which my aunt exclaims, 10 hours into a shopping marathon, “I’m looking for bargains!” Some of it rubbed off on me. Some. NOT A LOT! (I know, I know, denial’s the first symptom.)

Anyway. Shop around. Not at Best Bait-n-Switch and Circuit Vulgar-Adjective-that-Rhymes-with-City. You don’t want consumer-grade HP Pavilion and Compaq Presario junk. And you definitely don’t want slimy salespeople who know more about sales commissions than they know about computers. (I know, Best Bait-n-Switch salespeople aren’t commissioned, but their managers get monthly bonuses based on sales, so you’d better believe they’re putting the screws to the salespeople.) Avoid the salespeople. Use the Internet. I routinely find great deals at a wide variety of places: www.insight.com , www.onvia.com , www.outpost.com , www.pczone.com , www.cdw.com are all reputable. And a lot of times you even get free shipping from Onvia and Outpost.

Just to prove my point, I went to Insight, the first place I thought of. I found a Compaq Deskpro Celeron-500 with decent specs (64 megs of RAM, I forget what sized hard drive, and Windows 98) for $450. So you get the quality Compaq reserves for big corporate clients for an eMachine price. Very nice. That leaves a monitor. I know this person’s working on a tight budget and $450 may already be pushing it. I find some bottom-feeder 15″ monitors for $119. Then I spy a 15″ NEC monitor for $150. I’ve got a six-year-old NEC monitor that’s still going strong. And last year I threw away an NEC monitor built in 1988 that finally died after about 12 years, much of it hard use. NEC quality is definitely worth $30 extra.

Now, does NEC give you the same quality on their entry-level monitors today as on my older monitors that were top-drawer when they were built? Probably not. But they’re certainly better than Proview, and better than most monitors PC makers relabel. And while Compaq does some things that drive me up the wall, I’ll take a Deskpro over absolutely anything I can buy at a consumer electronics or office supply store. Heck, I’ll take a used Deskpro over any new consumer-grade PC.

So there you go: quality worthy of corporate use, for 600 lousy bucks.

I can’t always find a steal of a deal at Insight, but I can usually find something good at one of those five places.

So shop around, and when you find a price you’re willing to pay, ask a knowledgeable friend about it just to make sure. It’s not just people who build PCs in their basements for fun who get all the good deals.

Subscriptions. I was going to say something about this trend then I decided I’d wait until someone brought it up. Yesterday, two people did. I’m not too surprised; ever since Gun-Bob Sweatpants went the subscriber route, I’ve noticed a dramatic increase in my traffic.

I currently have no plans to adopt a subscription model.

For me, it’s an easy question. If I were to go to that model, 20 people would subscribe. Then, for less than I get for publishing a typical magazine article, I’d be committed to produce quality content on a regular basis for a year. Bad move.

But let’s say 600 people subscribed. At, say, $25 a year, that amounts to 15 grand. That’s a decent chunk of change. But once again, I’d be committed to produce quality content on a regular basis, I wouldn’t feel as free to experiment, and if I had to take a week off–or, heaven forbid, a few months off like last year–it would be very, very bad.

And besides, when people pay money, you feel worse about hacking them off because they have ownership. Take last month’s gun debate as an example. I killed off that topic because I found it boring and I suspected other people did too. After I started writing about computers again, readership climbed back to pre-gun levels. But what if that discussion had involved my five or six longest-time subscribers? Would I have been able to kill off the topic? I don’t know. I can hack off those five and risk losing five subscribers, or humor them and risk losing a few hundred subscribers. Somehow, when there’s no money involved, it’s easier to take those kinds of risks. The best way for a writer to grow is to take risks, and no publisher’s going to pay me to take risks.

Now let’s look at this another way. When I started out, I had about 25 readers. Soon I had 200. Soon after that I had to take my extended sabbatical to let my wrists heal. Within a month or so of coming back, I had about 175 readers and I stayed flat. I started working hard to promote the site, and pushed that to 400. I stopped promoting, and it dropped slightly. Now, it looks like I have about 600 readers.

Now, 600 subscribers, at $25 apiece, would net me 15 Gs. But if I keep my content free, I have every reason to believe that within six months I’d have 1,000 readers or maybe even 1,500. That gives me more leverage when I  write professionally. The first question any editor asks is, “Can you write?” I can say yes. But what if I say, “Well, I write a daily essay on whatever I feel like, and 1,500 people around the world read it.” Isn’t that a much better answer?

Can I (or my agent) use my daily readership as leverage when negotiating writing deals? You bet. Can I get more than $15,000 worth of benefit from that? Not this year. But if I get one magazine article or book chapter because of this site’s impact, I make more than I’d make under a subscription model. (Which will net me even more readers, and more clout. See the vicious circle?) But that’s a moot point anyway, because there’s no way anyone’s gonna pay 15 grand to listen to me spout off every day. Not this year. And not next year either.

I also realize that people’s needs change. Yes, I paid to subscribe to Jerry Pournelle’s site, because for a while, his site was absolutely invaluable to me. But over time his content changed, and my needs changed. I visit his site a couple times a month now. But I used to visit a couple times a day. When I visit, I don’t learn nearly as much as I used to, at least not about computers. Part of that’s because my needs have changed. And part of it’s because in the time since then, I’ve spent some 6,500 hours being paid to work on computers and I’ve written a computer book, a half-dozen articles for publication, half a book manuscript no one will ever see, done a tech review for someone else’s book, and reviewed three chapters of still another person’s book before it was published. I guess you could say I outgrew him.

And I fully expect a good percentage of my readers to outgrow me. Hopefully they’ll still find some reason to visit anyway, if my content remains free.

Besides, I get my Web hosting and most of my promotion for free. Is it right for me to charge people under that model? I don’t really think it is. I can remedy that, but frankly, for a while I even felt a little guilty using this site to promote my book. Then I decided that me promoting the book gives me credibility, which lends credence to Dave Winer’s saying a large number of professional journalists and authors use Manilla, which lets him sell more Manilla and make money, so he benefits and I benefit. So I no longer have a problem with that.

If my content really is worth something to you, there are a couple of things you can do. You can buy my book. I benefit monetarily from that, and book sales give me clout just like Web readership does. Some people even buy my book and give it to people for Christmas and birthday presents. That may be going a bit overboard but I appreciate it. And if you buy the book from my link on this site, I get a kickback from Amazon in addition to my royalty from O’Reilly.

Now maybe you’ve already bought my book and you’ve given copies to everyone you know and a few people you don’t (thanks). Or maybe you’ve read the reviews, read the sample chapters, decided my book’s not for you, but you like the things I write about here (thanks). If you want to give something, then the next time you’re planning to buy a book or a CD or software, click on my Amazon link and buy it. I get a small kickback.

So when people do that, I get a few bucks every quarter. And it doesn’t cost my readers much of anything–they’re just buying stuff they probably would have bought anyway. And it’s anonymous, so I get most, if not all the benefits of subscription without any imagined pressure. Everyone benefits.

Now, what about the subscriptions and members that Manilla speaks of? That’s just signing up for e-mail updates and the right to directly post responses to the things I post here. There’s no cost involved, and what gets e-mailed out are my daily posts. Granted, they differ slightly sometimes from what stays here because sometimes I go back and edit the content slightly. Subscribers and non-subscribers basically get the same benefits.

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