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How someone could make a fortune by marketing good laboratory computers.

A smart manufacturer could make a fortune by selling well-designed, well-integrated computers and equipment. This opinion column represents my effort to do something about the proliferation of confusing and misleading sales promises, incompatible products, and obsolescent technology that we must not permit to take over.

Lab equipment controlled by computers should use fully compatible (interchangeable) hardware with parts the average laboratorian can replace. Manuals should describe all components clearly. Each hardware item should be accompanied by comprehensive diagnostic software and a manual to diagnose common problems. These goals have been possible for many years.

* The 1970s. Before the large-scale PC revolution in the lab about 10 years ago, different brands of computers were incompatible. Well-known manufacturers even provided lines of computers that were highly incompatible with each other. It was often impossible to determine which computer was most cost-effective for a given task. Although software written for one computer could, with some changes, be run on a different computer, making those changes was extremely time consuming. Often, particularly with laboratory equipment, software or hardware designed for one computer could not be used with a different make or model.

A few outside companies started to design compatible parts: monitors, printers, and hard disks. To compete, major manufacturers would change their computers' operations so that by the time compatible equipment was marketed, it was nearly obsolete. Because relatively few computers of each type were sold, designing and selling compatible parts were prohibitively expensive.

For over 30 years, computer makers found that the key to survival was to make a computer that did the job while preventing the opposition from selling anything that would work with it. Users who depended on software written for a particular computer became slaves of the manufacturer.

* The 1980s. Much has been written about the reduced prices and increased availability of computers made possible during the computer revolution of the 1980s. An overlooked but important aspect of that revolution was vastly improved compatibility. In the early years of the decade, many companies made computer systems. For a while it seemed that 10, 20, or more types of PCs would be on the market indefinitely. Fortunately for users, most makers failed. Two major players survived: Apples and IBM PCs.

A few companies market clones of some, but not all, Apple computers; a huge number market IBM PC clones. Manufacturers of both types made their technical specifications public and allowed companies to produce and market compatible accessories and parts. In a chain reaction that quickly exploded, independent manufacturers made many low-cost parts and software, which led to the sale of more computers, which lowered the cost of parts, which led to the production of computer clones, which further lowered the cost of computers. Today we have inexpensive computers and software. Most computers are highly compatible with each other, accepting identical software and often the same hardware.

Many manufacturers recognized the impact of the computer revolution on lab equipment and adapted to it. Instead of making equipment with built-in, cumbersome, expensive computers, they used a standard PC to control their proprietary equipment. In essence, they separated the equipment into two parts: the sensing, detecting, or measurement component and the controlling or calculating component. Usually lab equipment makers designed the sensing component and used off-the-shelf PCs for control and calculations. The result was a highly cost-effective product.

Development time and costs were reduced. Instead of spending millions to create a worse and short-lived computer, companies spent their talents improving measurement components. Computers could easily be upgraded when better models became available.

Other companies failed to get the message. Even through the mid-'80s, some persisted in their old ways. Those that decided to market their own brands of PC clones claimed that their products were fully compatible with available software and accessories but better and less costly than better-known brands. Apparently innocently, however, they built in incompatibilities that forced buyers to use their parts, repairs, and software. Companies spent millions trying to convince buyers to buy their slightly incompatible PCs. They succeeded with major institutions but failed with most professional buyers. Now many of those manufacturers are on the brink of failure.

It is easy to confuse corporate buyers and others who are afraid to buy lesser-known brands. I know. I have worked for large branches of the Federal Government and private corporations. I was under extraordinary pressure from senior supervisors to buy particular brands of computers. Sometimes I was told that the maker made large donations to the institution or that a company executive was on our facility's board of trustees. At other times the rationale was even less straightforward. I remained skeptical.

I remember a meeting in approximately 1984 with representatives of one of the largest computer makers in the world. The company wanted our institution to adopt its PCs and other computers. I was the only one who objected. I pointed out that the drives were incompatible and that the computer would accept only the maker's version of software that we could easily obtain elsewhere at a lower cost. Although some major products from other companies had been adapted for the machines being offered to us, most had not; therefore, I was concerned about being unable to choose the software I wanted.

I lost. My organization ordered those computers. It used them for a little while. Then it bought IBM PC clones and put the other ones to rest. The closets of hospitals and research organizations are full of computers bought in the '80s that quickly became outdated.

Wheel-spinning and dead ends are common in the world of lab computers. Some of my own experiences are outlined in "Object lessons in frustration," above.

* What we can do. We, the consumers who support the industry, can do many things to discourage sloppy equipment design and to reward companies that provide good service.

[paragraph] Buy compatibility. Whenever you buy equipment that uses a computer for control or calculations, insist that the computer use standard, interchangeable parts and be fully compatible with IBM PC clones or Apple computers. Never purchase proprietary computers with nonstandard parts.

[paragraph] Demos your way. Insist on a demonstration under your conditions. Many a company has promised me that its system was terrific, but when I tried it under my own conditions, the system was terrifying--it crashed.

[paragraph] Send it back. If you purchase a system and it fails, insist on getting your money back. Incorporate a written money-back guarantee into all purchase contracts. State this policy to your supervisor in advance. Equipment that fails to work as promised may continue to give you grief indefinitely and end up wasting more and more time and resources.

Some companies rush to introduce new systems before doing adequate testing. Do you want to pay for the privilege of testing their equipment in your lab? Don't be shy: If it doesn't work, send it back. Many people spend hours to return a defective $15 consumer product but keep a defective $4,000 instrument forever.

* What manufacturers can do. Computer companies, you could make a killing in the market with a good product consisting of:

[paragraph] Measurement sensors. Use your R&D money to develop superb measurement equipment, not computers. Purchase computers off the shelf or tell customers which ones to buy.

[paragraph] Software. Establish joint programs with small companies that market excellent products. It may be cheaper to negotiate with them than to develop your own. Such a "marriage" could lead to a superior product marketed through well-established channels.

[paragraph] Instructions. Write manuals that are neither silly nor obscure. Use system designers who know what they are doing. Some companies hire programmers or designers who are unaware of what the market in general and the company in particular have been doing for the last 10 years. No wonder some wheels look square.

[paragraph] Clone. We could use a better IBM PC clone, despite the large number on the market. A good business or scientific computer makes a good home computer. Make hardware and software compatible and upgradable across models and sell them at an uninflated price. Three to five models plus some portables or laptops should meet most needs. Companies that have attempted to reach these goals have failed by introducing technologically outdated machines, such as the PS/1, or charging far too much for them, or making them hard to upgrade.

* Marketplace. History has proved that some computer buyers can be fooled some of the time. The depressed stock prices of some computer companies indicate that users cannot be fooled all the time.

The author is a senior scientist in the clinical nutrition unit at University Hospital, Boston University Medical Center, Boston, Mass.
COPYRIGHT 1991 Nelson Publishing
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1991 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Title Annotation:includes information on personal experience as frustrated computer user
Author:Siguel, Edward N.
Publication:Medical Laboratory Observer
Date:May 1, 1991
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