Stop the Race to the Bottom (of Hardware)

Recently there has been a lot of talk about software on the Apple App Store that have been driving prices into the $0.99 ground. This race to the bottom is when every software developer feels that they have to price their software lower than everyone else in order to make a sale. The software industry isn’t the only place plagued with the race to the bottom.

When is the last time that you saw a well constructed, properly thought out, well engineered laptop that didn’t have an Apple logo on it? Can’t think of anything? Why? The race to the bottom.

In an effort to compete with others, manufacturers have resorted to producing cheaper and cheaper laptops. This is especially scary for the hardware manufacturers, as the margins grow increasingly thin. Often, rather than even producing their own hardware they will simply rebrand an existing model, give it a few tweaks, and stuff it on the shelves of the nearest big box retailer with a price tag that is sure to attract. Yet this really doesn’t seem to be paying off. Does this sound familiar? It ought to.

The automotive industry has just recently gone through this exact same problem. North American automotive manufacturers figured it was best to rebrand cars from other manufacturers, slap a few minor tweaks on them and stuff them onto the nearest dealer’s lot. It hasn’t really worked out well for them either. People still continue to spend more on other manufacturers. Sounds an awful lot like somebody buying a Macbook, no? It’s a case of spending more on a device that is functionally equivalent to it’s competitors, yet costs significantly more. Yet there is a definite difference.

Someone in the laptop manufacturing sector needs to realize this: If you put a proper amount of money into research and development and produce a better product, you can charge more for it. People are willing to pay money for a higher quality product that they know will last. So why hasn’t any laptop manufacturer stepped up to the plate? I sure as heck don’t know. It completely baffles me that Dell, Asus, Acer, HP, Lenovo, and all of the other manufacturers haven’t stepped up their R&D budgets and done a proper amount of work on a product before stuffing it out to market.

I realize that producing a laptop probably isn’t a cheap endevour, but seriously – take an extra month or two and polish it. Use higher quality materials than your competitors, such as lightweight metals rather than plastics. Make sure hinges and latches are designed with durability in mind. Eliminate cracks that collect dust. Design proper copper heatsinks that prevent overheating, and that aren’t easily clogged by dust or dirt (or at the very least, make them easily cleanable). Put a proper sized, quality battery in your machines (that is preferably replaceable, unless it’s got an amazing capacity to start with).

Maybe it is time that the hardware industry took a lesson from the software industry on iterative design. Produce a laptop, give it the kids of your employees for a few weeks. Bring them back in, see what problems developed, what was liked/not liked, and figure out a way of fixing all that. It’s a really simple way of getting things right. People who actually use your product are probably going to find out what really works and what doesn’t, better than any testing lab will. Take all that valuable feedback and feed it back into the product. Do this at least once, preferrably more, and I can guarantee that you will have a much better product.

Yes, it costs more and takes more time, but nobody likes a half baked cake that’s missing a key ingredient or two.

So, to those of you who are in the laptop manufacturing business: Step it up or be stepped on. If you don’t do something soon the only things you’ll be able to sell are poor quality plastic knockoffs of your asian counterparts while your main competitor eats your sales alive.

Please, stop the race to the bottom (of hardware).

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