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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.

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The Saints

  • 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 users.

  • 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 are online.

  • 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.

The Sinners

  • 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 and work-arounds.

  • 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 customers.

  • 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 straightforward, easily located privacy policy. Faced with federal controls, 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, too late.

  • 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

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