The Importance of Expert Systems When Buying Systems

Back in the 1970s, a company called Digital Equipment Corporation (DEC), or "Digital," out of Maynard, MA, sold a lot of minicomputers. They were boxes the size of refrigerators that could each support a handful of ASCII terminals. The computers were a great bargain for the time: A department could buy a DEC mini in the $100,000 range and have a computer all to itself instead of begging for time on some multimillion-dollar CDC, IBM, or Univac mainframe. There was just one problem: the sales force.

Buying mainframes was a slow, deliberate experience involving a bunch of highly qualified presales technicians. Profits on these sales were so large that mainframe companies could afford to take the time to figure out exactly what equipment a customer needed. In contrast, the DEC systems were so (relatively) cheap that DEC couldn't afford to go over every order with a fine-toothed comb. As a result, the company's installers would sometimes arrive on a customer's site, only to realize that the sales folks had overlooked, say, a disk cable. The customer would get angry, tell the installers that money for the $1000 disk cable (everything computer-related was astoundingly expensive in those days) wouldn't be available until the next budget cycle, so would the installers kindly pack up the now-useless minicomputer and take it back to DEC's warehouse? The installer guys would then call Maynard and get the OK to just give the customer the cable. The customer would be happy, but DEC was out a grand.

DEC's answer was to realize that configuring a minicomputer was a complex task—but a computable one. So, the company built one of the world's first expert systems, the Expert Configurator (XCON). Sales folks would use it to enter a customer's order, and XCON would offer suggestions such as, "Did you remember to include a drive cable with that hard drive?"—reportedly saving DEC a bunch of money. It was an early example of how interactive computing could assist and amplify human effectiveness. And it was a real feather in DEC's cap.

That's why I found my recent experience buying an HP laptop to be so, well, confusing.

I needed a new laptop that would hold 4GB of RAM and run some kind of dual-core processor. (Windows Vista and Longhorn Server created those needs.) I wanted an AMD-based laptop because my current laptop, an Acer Ferrari 4000, is the fastest 2GHz system I've ever worked with, so I wanted to find a system that used that system's dual-core Turion x2 processor. The answer seemed to be HP's nx6325 Business Laptop, which HP's Web site claims will accept two memory modules (2GB each), takes 2.5" SATA drives, and sports an AMD Turion x2 processor. Satisfied, I navigated to the Web-based configuration pages.

First, I tried to configure the system with two 2GB memory modules. Again, the Web site stated that the system could take 4GB total. But the Web sales pages wouldn't let me do it. Finally, I surrendered and called HP to talk to a salesperson, who explained after extensive conferring with his confreres that HP couldn't spec out a 4GB system. All HP could offer, he explained, was the purchase of a laptop with the minimum memory offered (512MB) and two 2GB SIMMs—then I could throw away the 512MB SIMM.

Next, I asked about hard disks. HP offered drives only in sizes up to 100GB, but I knew that there were 2.5" SATA drives available in sizes up to 200GB (with the 300GB Fujitsu MHX2300BT arriving any day now). Nope, HP couldn't sell me a laptop with the 200GB drive in it, nor would the company sell me a laptop without a drive.

The option, then, was to buy a system with 512MB of RAM to throw away, and a 40GB hard disk to throw away, and then to buy the two 2GB SIMMs and 200GB SATA drive from lower-cost third parties. Does buying a computer from a large vendor have to be this hard both on the buyer and the seller?

If you've been watching the computer industry for the past few years, you might know that Digital was purchased by Compaq a few years ago, and a couple of years after that, HP bought Compaq. Which means, of course, that the brains who developed XCON now work at HP. Unfortunately, those brains don't seem to be working at the Web site.

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