Micron Computers’ rise and fall

Micron Computers was a moderately successful attempt by Micron Technology, a maker of computer memory chips, to market PCs. First released in 1995, the venture succeeded very well at first, and survived in the marketplace until 2008. Although not widely remembered today, Micron made dependable, reliable PCs at a fair price.

Remembering Micron Computers

Micron Computers
This to top of the line Micron PC from would have been a dream machine for Windows 95. It wasn’t overpriced but it wasn’t cheap, either. It likely cost over $2,000.

In mid-2018, Crucial Technology, the Micron subsidiary that sells memory modules to consumers, posted a question on its social media account: What was your first laptop?

I trolled them.

“It was made by Micron. Some fly by night in Idaho you probably never heard of.”

They laughed. “Oh no! Not those guys!”

They seemed pleasantly surprised that anyone remembered Micron used to make computers.

Of course, Micron was anything but an upstart or a fly-by-night. Micron is a survivor. At some point, almost every other U.S. company who ever made computer chips made memory chips. One by one, they quit making them, unable to compete with companies in Japan and Korea. By the late 1980s, Micron was the only one left. And yet, here they are, still making quality memory chips, and still based in Idaho.

Why start a new computer company in 1995?

It may seem strange for an established company to jump into a crowded computer market in 1995, when the market was stuffed full of companies who’d been selling computers for 10 years or more.

But the timing made sense. Microsoft was about to release Windows 95, which everyone knew was going to require 8 megabytes of RAM to run reasonably, 16 megabytes of RAM to run well, and power users were going to want 32. Any computer worth having was going to contain several hundred dollars’ worth of memory.

Some of Micron’s competitors, like Dell and Gateway, didn’t make any components at all. Micron could buy parts from the same suppliers they did, use its own memory, and have higher margins while selling them direct made-to-order like they did. Basically, Micron took Dell’s formula, sprinkled in a little bit of vertical integration, and bet on success.

Micron didn’t go with full 1980s-style vertical integration a la Texas Instruments or Commodore. No one had Intel’s vertical integration, and Intel had no interest in making computers and messing with direct sales. But selling its motherboards to Micron, who added its memory and the rest of the necessary components, would do for the 90s.

What Micron Computers were like

Inside, Micron Computers were as conservative as they came. Micron bought motherboards and processors from Intel. Sound cards came from Creative Labs. Western Digital and Seagate supplied hard drives. NEC provided CD-ROM drives. And Micron put them in cases from the same suppliers Dell and Gateway used. Looking at a Dell, Gateway, and Micron next to each other was like looking at a Chevy, Pontiac and Oldsmobile next to each other, even though they were different companies.

There was nothing bold or new about it. Just a well-tested grouping of industry standard parts that worked well together. And in the mid 90s, that was the main thing we wanted from our computers, because frequently they didn’t work all that well. And since everything was off the shelf, the possibilities for upgrades were just about limitless. That didn’t hurt.

Micron ran a gimmick for a while, offering a 5-year warranty on the CPU and memory. It provided something of value that lasted longer than a box with cow spots on it, even if the chances of the memory or CPU failing within five years was nearly zero.

It worked. Micron Computers were a hit, and Micron’s share price more than doubled, hitting a price over $44 per share a month after Windows 95 came out. Micron became a darling of the tech industry. If you wanted a good PC at a really fair price, it was hard to do better than Micron.

Competition takes its toll

Micron computers sold pretty well through the 90s, but price pressures started squeezing Micron’s margins. Micron experienced another big boom around 2000, spurred by people buying new systems to replace systems that weren’t Y2K compliant, but outside of the boom times, the share price was volatile. And the industry slowly got better at resolving its compatibility issues and quirks. That meant you didn’t always have to buy the big, expensive brand-name parts anymore to get something that worked. Memory was a tough business, and after the Y2K gravy train came to a close, the computers turned into a distraction.

Micron experimented with selling computers in Best Buy stores, as well as direct, rebranded itself as Micron-PC-dot-com in an effort to take advantage of the dotcom fad, and started using more and more parts from Samsung in an effort to get costs down. Eventually Micron spun the subsidiary off entirely, renaming it MPC. In the end, industry consolidation and price pressures took their toll on MPC, and MPC closed its doors in 2008, ending a 13-year run. The 2000s were a brutal decade for PCs, seeing the exit of IBM and Compaq, two of the market leaders Micron kicked around as a rookie.

The parent company, Micron Technology, and the sister company, Crucial Technology, of course survive to this day, but they just sell memory and SSDs exclusively, going back to their roots and selling what they know. Selling memory and SSDs to its former competitors worked out pretty well for Micron.

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