PS Consultants - ideas & solutions

You've never had it so good?
February  2002

The post-war Conservative PM, Harold McMillan, observed during the 1959 General Election that the voters had "never had it so good". Well, Iíd be so bold as to suggest that IT consumers have not simply "never had it so good", they are now utterly spoiled beyond belief. Philippe Kahn, erstwhile founder of the once-mighty Borland software business, once made an observation that has become something of a de facto "law" that stated that the PC you really want always costs $3k (so read £3k pounds in the usual manner that us Brits get burned) has been downsized.

I reckon that £2k gets me just about anything I could fancy in desktop hardware. In fact, to spend more, Iíd need to do some pretty daft and extreme things, like a video editing card that would allow me to create Star-Wars grade effects from my £399 handicam.

Technology has indeed gone barmy. Those magnificent anoraks on BBC2ís Robot Warís cult show proudly tell the viewers that their latest wheelchair-motor powered behemoth, the fearsome "Son of Mangler" sports more than a hundred times the processing power that was available to get the US a manned landing on the moon. Nevertheless, their pride and joy promptly gets flipped and then shredded by the brutal Hypnodisk within 22 seconds. Sic transit Gloria mundi, as they say here in Essex.

A gigabyte of RAM for £60? WHAT? I can remember when 4Mbyte of RAM cost £100+. And just bear in mind that it still only take one bit in the wrong place and the whole thing crashes.

A 4MHz Z80 8 bit CPU was the biz 15 years ago. Now itís 2GHz of P4 for similar money.

Laser printers for £200? My first Canon LBP weighed enough to give Arnold Swarzenegger a hernia, and cost about £3k, when £3k would have bought you a decent car. A set of output rollers for the bloody thing cost £220.

80Gbyte hard drives for £160..? Well, speechless. If memory serves, my first 5.25" hard drive was a "full width" 5Mbyte Rodime drive and cost somewhere close to £500. Iím suffering a little selective amnesia to help soften the shock of working out just how much money I must have poured down the IT drain over the past 20 years.

Whatís going on here..? Maybe itís just the old game of supply and demand, and maybe we just arenít as aware of the gloom and a recession in the US as we ought to be.

Those widescreen tellies seem to be about half the price they were last year; plasmas are a bit cheaper at around £2500 a pop, but decent LCD projectors are still hanging on to tags of around £3k.

The one area in consumer technology where I reckon vendors are still having a bit of a laugh with the punters (while they can) is a (still) digital camera. Dear readers, many of you are still paying more for one of these somewhat limited devices, than a perfectly lovely 4mm or 8mm digital handycam that also does stills to virtually the same quality.

One of the sneakier new product releases to watch for in the "how can they possibly do it for that?" bracket is coming up soon (possibly about the time this piece appears) from a familiar UK name. £99 inc VAT will get you a perfectly viable CLI screen phone and digital answering machine, plus a half-VGA LCD (320x480) display and a fully interactive web browser, as well as email service. It also plays classic computer games on a rental basis.

Has the value of the £ suddenly soared while we werenít looking? There has been a certain amount of "realignment" with Europe, but the present purchasing power seems to be quite remarkable, and the exchange rate against the US $ (the main currency for virtually all electronic technology) has been plenty better even in recent-ish times. So that canít be it.

Is it because the internet has made instant price transparency unavoidable in world trading? Of all the possible reasons, this is one I like best, since the Internet is a relatively new phenomenon that coincides quite closely with the recent period of near zero inflation.

One of the more unnerving aspects of all this is that vendors of IT kit have to shift three times a much product to earn the same margin. How long would you be happy to work three times a many hours to get the same pay, I wonder?

So make the most of the opportunity; and since this edition of ĎShopper is the one that spans the new year (never mind the cover date), letís try and make a resolution to take advantage of these rare times to get the UK educational system better equipped for the IT challenges of the moment. Sadly, the "make do and mend" mindset of the Brits means that I am certain that there will be enclaves of BBC Model B computers still doing sterling service in a classroom somewhere.