My friend Sandro read this Slate piece yesterday and wrote this blog entry in part about enthusiasts and users. I think his concern that today’s computer science students seem to be more users than enthusiasts is very legitimate, since they’re some of the people we’re counting on for the next advances in the field of computing and innovative new products. The similarity he sees between advances in automobiles and computing is an interesting one. I agree with him up to a point about commoditization, but I see real benefits to certain things becoming commodities. He touches only briefly on case mods in the PC space, but commodity hardware (RAM, hard drives, video cards, etc) has made it a lot easier for the technically-inclined to build entire PCs themselves, instead of buying whatever Dell or HP is selling this week. Commodity hardware and operating systems are what enable a product like TiVo to exist (along with less-capable imitators). We have commodity hardware to thank for the XBox 360, and commodity operating systems to thank for XBMC. This doesn’t mean that a ton of people will avail themselves of the option to build their own PC, or their own home theater PC, just that the option is definitely out there for those who want to.
I suspect it has always been the case that the vast majority of people would rather use something cool than build it. As much as those of us in the U.S. love cars, very few of us will be building our own Rally Fighter anytime soon. I enjoy photography as a hobby, but I haven’t been in a darkroom to develop my own film in years (nor did I ever spend enough time in one to get really good at the process). At least with computers, there came a point for me where fiddling around inside the guts of a computer to get something working again got to be too much of a hassle. This could mean I’m gotten lazy, but I really like it when things just work. There’s definitely something to be said for having the ability to fix something or hack it to do something beyond its original purpose. I’ve always admired people like that, and I think they’re responsible for a lot of the great advances we benefit from today.
I think human nature is such that we won’t run out of enthusiasts anytime soon. As long as there are magazines like MAKE and sites like iFixit, enthusiasts will continue to do things that make users jealous.
Ah, but part of the problem is that computers are such a commodity, that there is now way for an enthusiast to build a machine cheaper than Dell. I started building PC’s as a cost cutting measure, but these days Dell’s special o’week is a cheaper source of parts than I could ever hope to get otherwise.
Cost-cutting was certainly one rationale for building a machine yourself. Other people did it because they wanted higher-quality components and were willing to pay for them. All Dell has done by pricing machines so cheaply is driven profit out of that business. That’s why they and other companies like them have diversified into services. They can’t charge premium prices anywhere else. Apple’s stubborn insistence on pricing to make a profit (and making products people are willing to pay a premium for) keeps it in the black, bad economy or no.