Tower of 'techno' Babel
As format wars rage between audio players, videogames, and DVD players, consumers get caught in the crossfire.
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Consumers can feel helpless amid the competing choices. "All of this is like the old Mac versus PC debate," says Peter Aiken, an associate professor of information systems at Virginia Commonwealth University. "Most people are just overwhelmed by facts and features and the latest fashion, and still say, 'Just help me do it.' "Skip to next paragraph
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The first step in fighting back resembles a 12-step program: Understand why and when you open your wallet. Are you guided by emotion or reason, fashion or features, being first or being safe?
It also helps to grasp the difference between merely upgrading (new PS3 versus old PS2), switching to a different system (Microsoft Zune versus Apple iPod) or adventuring into new territory altogether (the Wii). "You have to approach each decision as the right kind of problem," adds Mr. Aiken.
History offers one important lesson, says Ken Colburn, president of Data Doctors Computer Services, a national chain store. "What has become clear is that it is impossible to choose a standard in the early stages of a new technology," he says. "If you don't want to take a chance on being a guinea pig, don't buy technology that is in its infancy."
Indeed, early response to the new face-off between emerging DVD standards shows that consumers have learned from being burned. New machines using either Blu-ray or HD are not selling well.
And winning can be short-lived. "There's a great deal of frustration these days with consumers," says Aiken. "They know that no matter what they do, a newer thing will come along tomorrow and blow today's new thing away."
Beyond that, consumers are getting tired of products that are rushed to market before the kinks are fully worked out.
Buying a previous generation of the product solves that problem, says Aiken, who also is a productivity consultant. "More people are purposely buying last year's model because it's cheaper and it's proven itself."
Back in Fry's Aisle 30, wary gaming fans already display their own survival tactics.
"I'm leaning toward the PS3," says teenager Marianne Miller. It has the games she likes, but she's not even trying to buy it right away. "Not enough good games out yet, and I'm not going to wait in line." A data-entry specialist from Pinon Hills, Calif., she and her friend Cayla Lott compensate for a lack of cash with knowledge.
One of Ms. Miller's pet peeves: manufacturers who release products with bugs. "I wouldn't buy anything from Microsoft until it's been out for at least a year," she says, pointing to last year's holiday must-have, the Xbox 360.
"Half the first models fried out right away and had to be replaced," Miller continues. "Microsoft was just too hot to beat everybody else, so they put it out too fast and blew it."
Ms. Lott, who also is a serious videogame player, says she's not so sure about the PS3 and has her own strategy for making the decision. She points to her friend and says with a laugh, "I'll just play hers 'til I decide."