I ponder important things when I walk the dog. For instance, the other day I determined the percentage of trees we pass by that he marks as his own (43.62%, which must be an anomaly, because it is far less than I thought). I also wondered why local food allergy advocates haven’t filed a discrimination lawsuit against my kids’ school for their upcoming ice cream social. On that same walk, I wished that Nintendo would sell the rights to its ridiculous Wii U gaming system to Yahoo so that it would be called the Yahoo Wii U. Like I said, I think about important stuff.
Then I began thinking about how the next generation game machines, the XBox One and and the Playstation 4, are coming out at the end of the year. First, as an XBox fan, I lamented the stupidity of calling the third-generation XBox “One” instead of something cool like “XBox 720″ or “XBox Jennifer Lawrence Appreciation Edition.” That somehow triggered memories of eighth grade. I painfully recalled how my mom had bought me bright green slacks at Sears. I actually wore those pants of pathos to a graduation party, much to the enjoyment of finger-pointers who now listen to country music and push paper for a living. (In fairness, I primarily push paper too, but, since I have a Ph.D., my piles are higher and deeper. Winning?)
Beyond that rather uncomfortable memory, however, I recalled how my parents had made two tech investments for me that year that had a big impact on me. First, they made me a happy chubby funster when they finally had our family join the video game revolution: they bought me an Atari 2600 for $134 the summer before eighth grade. I spent hours playing Combat, Asteroids, Defender, Space Invaders, Missile Command, Enduro, and Pitfall with my sister and my grandparents. Then, for my graduation, they blazed my trail to nerdvana by buying me a Commodore 64 for a whooping $525. They also bought me a subscription to Compute! magazine so that I could type the programs they published each month into the computer and run them myself.
Within the space of an academic year, my parents had made me both a gamer and a hacker.
Think about it: $525 dollars in 1984 for a home computer! What is that today, like $2,500? (I don’t really know. I’m a Computer Scientist, not a business major; I’m consistently clear about that.) My parents surely must have loved me to dish out that kind of dough. But either they were major suckers, or I was remarkably persistent and spoiled. How duped were we as consumers back then to pay that much for this stuff?
Certainly, as advances are made in Computer Science that pack exponentially more features into smaller and smaller spaces, and as manufacturing processes are refined and refined again, our bang for the buck increases dramatically. It certainly has. For instance, just yesterday, a student came to my office to make me insanely jealous over the touchscreen Asus Ultrabook with SSD he had just bought. His cost was what my parents paid to buy my Commodore 64 in 1984. And while his computer doesn’t play Commodore’s epic Potty Pigeon cartridge game, I assume it can do cool things, too.
However, that natural price decline we’ve seen in big hardware hasn’t translated into lower prices for software and peripherals. Take, for example, this interesting list of overpriced tech goods. When I read the title of the article, I expected to see it stacked with Apple products. (Yes, I’m a hater. Sorry.) However, there are no half-eaten-fruit computers on this list. There are, however, cables and smart phones and Microsoft Office and cloud storage solutions and bandwidth. It turns out that companies are making huge profits on these things. While the profits might not be as egregious as what the oil industry makes, they’re not exactly distancing themselves from Tex Richman, either.
The good news here, however, is that the big margins on these things, combined with a plethora of buying options, mean that we can often find bargains. For example, Monoprice has great deals on a wide selection of cables and other peripherals. Woot! has daily deals on big-ticket tech items (as well as on toys and home goods) that usually provide great value, particularly on refurbished items. Walmart has a very affordable mobile plan that works with the latest and greatest smart phones. Amazon, because it gets its tentacles into almost everything, usually has very competitive prices on computer peripherals. And don’t forget Newegg, which is my favorite place to buy computer hardware and components this side of Amazon.
As consumers, we often wander around with a big “Fleece Me” sign taped to our backs. It doesn’t have to be that way with tech. There are options.
Besides, I’d like to save my money for other investments. Excuse me for a moment while I shop for some snazzy bright green slacks.