Dell & HP - let's blame the computer manufacturers

Desktop computer sales are plummeting.

Windows 8 is preparing to slink offstage after a fairly disastrous time in the spotlight, to be replaced in early 2015 by the Newer! Brighter! Better! Windows 9.

No one is enthusiastic about buying a computer any more. It’s just an overly complicated tool – more of an annoyance than a treat.

How did we get here?

There are lots of reasons but for today let’s blame the computer manufacturers.

It is absurd in 2014 that it takes hours to set up a new computer after I pull it out of the box. I’m not talking about the specific setup that a particular business needs – joining the domain, installing line of business programs, setting up printers and the like. No, I’m talking about housekeeping, mundane chores to clean up the computer so it’s presentable.

It starts with removal of crapware – programs that are preinstalled because the manufacturer was paid by some company to include them. You didn’t ask for them. They don’t add value. They’re just junk. There are preview versions of programs that will nag you for payment, a security program that you wouldn’t choose for yourself, cruddy photo programs, stupid games, unnecessary utilities, on and on. This is an old problem that comes and goes – Dell’s business computers are shipped with relatively little crud, to their credit. But the other manufacturers (and Dell, in its consumer lineup) still include shovelfuls of programs that spoil your experience and drag the computer’s performance down.

A couple of years ago Microsoft tried to interest the manufacturers in marketing PCs without crapware. You know, like Macs. The “Microsoft Signature” program went nowhere because manufacturers don’t particularly care about providing you with a good experience. They are willing to make the computers slower and more frustrating if they can make a few extra dollars on the side.

Lately that hasn’t even been the most irritating part.

It’s the updates. They’re driving me nuts.

Let’s use my experience over the weekend with Windows 8 as an example. Trust me when I tell you this is typical and I’m going through some variation of this with every computer I set up now, both Windows 7 and 8.

The current version of Windows is version 8.1. It’s a complete replacement for the original release of Windows 8. When you get a new PC, you should get Windows 8.1.

I ordered a new Dell Inspiron All-In-One for a client. It’s one of Dell’s flagship consumer PCs with a nice form factor and a touchscreen. It shipped promptly and arrived last Friday.

It had Windows 8 on it, not Windows 8.1.

Let’s stop there for a moment.

Windows 8.1 was “released to manufacturing” on August 27, 2013. That’s five months ago. Dell and HP and the rest got the Windows 8.1 code that day. It’s their job to put it on their new computers. It’s not your job. When you order a new computer, it should be shipped with the current version of the operating system.

I have yet to unbox a new desktop computer that has shipped with Windows 8.1.

Five months.

When Apple introduces an upgrade to OS X, it’s not still shipping the previous version five months later.

Back to the new Inspiron. I went to the Windows Update screen and checked for updates. There were sixty-four important updates to install. Some of them are prerequisites before Windows 8.1 is offered but it’s not easy to tell which ones. Effectively all important updates have to be installed before tackling Windows 8.1.

The first sixty-four updates took more than half an hour to download and install. Remember, other than qualifying the machine for Windows 8.1, none of them are necessary, because the whole OS is about to be blown out and replaced with Windows 8.1.

After the computer restarted, Windows 8.1 appeared in the Store and I could start its installation.

The Windows 8.1 upgrade is glacial. It’s a terrible experience. Over 3 gigabytes of code is downloaded in the background and the first install routines are done automatically. Depending on your Internet speed, it might be 45 minutes – 2 hours before you’ll be prompted to restart.

After the restart, the computer chugs along for 30-60 minutes working on the upgrade, during which time it’s unusable and must not be disturbed.

It’s followed by another trip through the license screens that were first seen hours earlier when the computer came out of the box. When the Start screen finally appears . . .

There are more updates.

The whole process takes several hours – just to install the latest version of Windows and the security updates needed to be safe online. Theoretically it doesn’t have to be done right away. Updates would be installed automatically during the first couple of weeks that the computer runs. Windows 8.1 itself, though, is not done automatically, which might be the reason that two-thirds of the Windows 8 computers in the world have not yet been upgraded to 8.1.

I have to do the work. I can’t deliver a computer that needs dozens of security patches and a disruptive OS upgrade before it’s up to date. But it shouldn’t be my job, or yours. It’s the manufacturers’ job to keep up.

The manufacturers have dropped the ball before, over and over. Just a few recent highlights:

—  Vista failed in part because the manufacturers put it on underpowered hardware to save a buck, guaranteeing a poor experience.

—  Touchscreens should have been standard on every laptop in 2012, just as basic as touchpads and keyboards, but the manufacturers chose to underplay them in favor of dropping laptop prices to a zone where they’re both unprofitable and unappealing – a lethal combination.

—  The manufacturers helped erode Windows 8’s chances to succeed and are encouraging businesses to stagnate by not offering it on business PCs and crowing about “popular demand” for Windows 7 in their ads.

There are more examples. We have not been well served. Tablets and phones might have arrived regardless but desktop computing does not have to have wound up in the doldrums. Computer manufacturers deserve some of the blame.

I’m off to install more updates. (sigh)

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