In the mid-1980s, I purchased my first car (a Honda Civic) and my first personal computer (an IBM PC AT) at about the same time and for about the same price ($6,000 to $7,000; the price of the computer included a monitor and a printer). Both products were what economists call “durable goods.” Both were used in larger systems consisting of the user, complementary products, and infrastructure. Both required me to master complex user interfaces and protocols. And, in both cases, the manufacturers followed up the initial models with a sequence of “new and improved” versions. My experiences owning and replacing the two were, however, very dissimilar.
An annual stream of new and improved Civics notwithstanding, I used my car for eleven years, for the most part with satisfaction, and easily disposed of it for just under a third of the original purchase price. As basic transportation goes, the new car I purchased as a replacement was not much more superior, but it was much more expensive and, given the rate at which car prices were rising, I was glad I replaced my car when I did and not later.
My experience with the personal computer was very different. I could barely squeeze three years out of it (not because the computer itself was wearing out, but because soon it was not powerful enough for me, my software, my display monitor, or my colleagues). At the end of three years, I had to practically give it away, and when it came to a replacement, I looked at the stream of cheaper, even newer, and even more improved computers, monitors, software, printers, and so on, reflected on my experience, and tried my best to put off the purchase. I felt as if I were playing a game that I the consumer could never win. Regret (over my past purchase), hesitation (over a replacement purchase), and anxiety (about future trends for all the different components of the system) seemed the only outcomes of which I could be sure. I was, to put it mildly, not happy.
I suspect I am not the only consumer who feels somewhat helpless when coping with the steady stream of even newer and even more improved personal computer-related products. Consider this quote from the Wall Street Journal:
In the beginning, there was Microsoft Word 1.0, and it was good. But it wasn’t perfect. So Microsoft Corp. developed upgrades: Word 2.0