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Saints and sinners: 1998 in review
Which companies deserve your trust, and which should eat your dust?
November 6, 1998
Web posted at: 4:45 PM EDT
by Roberta Furger
(IDG) -- How does a PC vendor earn your loyalty? Competitive prices are
obviously a plus, but price alone won't make you a longtime customer.
Service is what counts. (I don't know about you, but I don't think I've
ever bought a software program or a critical piece of hardware solely
because of its price.)
Great service can take many forms. It can be a demonstrated commitment
to providing high-quality technical support and repair services. It can
mean testing software fully to ensure that the final released product
is bug-free (or as close to that ideal as possible). It can mean introducing
innovative new services that offer customers greater choice. These types
of customer-first policies and practices are what earn companies sainthood
in this annual look at the year in review.
And the sinners? These are the companies whose buggy products or poor
service -- or combination of both -- have left customers in the lurch,
companies whose practices (if not policies) leave customers feeling frustrated,
ignored, and angry.
You may notice that this year's listing of saints includes several organizations
outside the computer industry. As we move ever further into the brave
new world of Web-based computing, these watchdog groups play an invaluable
role in ensuring that the needs and rights of consumers remain paramount.
Their efforts deserve our thanks and support.
- Netscape Communications: Netscape earned sainthood last year
for holding its own in the browser war against Microsoft. One year later,
the company -- and its award-winning browser -- are still going strong,
keeping significant market share while continuing to offer enhancements
to customers. Netscape is also commended for embracing the open source
code model with Navigator 5.0 -- a move that lets all developers improve
and debug Navigator. Even if opening the code was just a strategy to
survive Microsoft's aggressive marketing, the result is great news for
- Dell, Gateway, and Micron: Thousands of motorists choose to
lease a vehicle rather than buy a new car every few years. Now, thanks
to two of these leading computer makers--Dell and Micron--consumers
can lease their next PC. These lease programs aren't the cheapest way
to move up to state-of-the-art, but for the cash-strapped, credit-card
poor among us, they offer a hedge against the never-ending battle to
stay current with the latest technology.
Gateway, too, deserves praise for its innovative YourWare program,
which, like the lease options from Dell and Micron, lets customers
pay for their computer in low monthly installments. Another advantage
of YourWare: After two years consumers can trade the computer in (at
fair market value) for a new model.
- Better Business Bureau: Thanks to BBBOnLine, consumers can
shop on the Web with confidence, knowing that any merchant whose site
bears the familiar BBB logo has passed a thorough inspection by this
well-known and trusted organization. To earn the BBBOnLine seal of approval,
a company must meet a number of requirements, including participating
in an arbitration program to resolve customer complaints. Unfortunately
for consumers, relatively few companies (only 1750 to date) are taking
advantage of this service.
- Federal Trade Commission: The FTC earns major kudos for speaking
out for consumers on two critical online issues: the proliferation of
junk e-mail, and the furtive collection of personal information by Web
sites of every type. Besides convening an ad hoc group to investigate
solutions to the spam scourge, the FTC conducted a comprehensive survey
of Web sites last spring, and subsequently called for federal legislation
to govern the collection of information from children online. Now, if
only Congress would do its part.
- Center for Media Education: CME has provided a constant voice
of reason in the ongoing battle to protect the privacy of online consumers.
This Washington, D.C., watchdog group was at the vanguard when it sounded
the alarm about online marketing and advertising aimed at children with
the release of its groundbreaking 1996 report, Web of Deception . The
organization continues to advocate tirelessly for children's rights,
educating the public on this critical issue and pushing Congress to
adopt legislation governing the collection of data from children who
- Detwiler Foundation's Computers for Schools Program: Since
its founding in 1991, this San Diegobased organization has placed more
than 40,000 computers in public and private schools. With the help of
some key private-sector grants and through an innovative cooperative
effort with the Federal Bureau of Prisons (whose inmates upgrade and
repair donated computers), the foundation has expanded its efforts to
more than a dozen states. Many more states are scheduled to sign on
in the coming year.
- Microsoft: Many at Microsoft will forever remember 1998 as
the year Bill Gates went head-to-head with Attorney General Janet Reno.
But many computer users will remember it as the year Microsoft released
a steady stream of buggy products and tried to tame glitches in previous
releases. First there was Internet Explorer 4.0, with its much-publicized
security holes that allowed Web hackers to view data on individual hard
drives. Then came a procession of often small but annoying bugs. And
instead of a straightforward patch, Microsoft issued the Internet Explorer
Service Pack 1 -- then left it up to customers to figure out if they
needed to install it. Thanks for the help.
Windows 98 wasn't without problems, either. The biggest headaches
for consumers concerned incompatibilities between existing hardware
and software and the upgraded OS. Just about all the leading notebook
manufacturers reported incompatibilities with Win 98. And glitches
with Office 97 compelled Microsoft to issue not one, but two service
releases. Unfortunately, the releases weren't cumulative, so users
had to install both updates to take advantage of all the fixes
- Iomega: First Iomega dug itself out from under a class action
suit (and bad consumer feelings) related to customer service and support.
Customers complained of being put on hold for long periods of time and
later being charged excessive amounts for those calls. Then the company
found itself in the midst of a brand-new controversy, the so-called
Click of Death. Iomega acknowledged last February that the clicking
sound in a small number of Zip drives could signify that some or all
Zip disks are unreadable -- bad news for folks who'd used them to store
valuable data. Iomega initially refused to replace faulty drives that
were more than one year old, but it has now dropped that time limit.
- Maximus Computers: This Southern California company presents
so many reasons to be included in the sinners category, it's hard to
know where to begin. First, there were charges early in the year that
customers had received unlicensed software with their Maximus computers.
Then came a stream of complaints about obtaining service and support
from the mail-order company. At this writing, Maximus is under investigation
by the Florida attorney general's office for not providing either the
on-site service or the 24-hour technical support that it had promised
- The e-commerce industry: With a few notable exceptions, Web
merchants have ignored calls for self-restraint in their rampant collecting
of personal information online. According to a June 1998 report by the
Federal Trade Commission, 92 percent of all commercial Web sites collect
personal information about consumers, while only 14 percent offer any
type of notice about their data collection practices -- including a
the e-commerce industry is arguing that self-regulation, not legislation,
is the best way to protect consumer privacy. Sorry folks: It's too little,
- The PC industry: Despite all the predictions of data loss and
other dire consequences, software (and hardware) companies have failed
to devise industrywide standards for handling the year 2000 problem
(when computers may misread dates). Instead, consumers and businesses
alike will have to deal with a multitude of different fixes, even among
different versions of the same application.
For example, the fix in Microsoft Excel 7 does not match the remedy
in Excel 97, raising the potential for untold headaches and data corruption
for users who need to work with a file in both versions of Excel.
Where does this lack of Y2K conformity leave consumers? In the lurch.
Roberta Furger is a PC World contributing editor and author of
Does Jane Compute? Preserving Our Daughters' Place in the Cyber Revolution
(Warner Books, 1998). Encountered any sinners lately? Or saints? Send
your nominations to email@example.com.