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Celebrating 20 years of Upgrading and Repairing PCs

Scott Mueller, author of Upgrading and Repairing PCs and CompTIA A+ 220-701 and 220-702 Cert Guide shares his thoughts with Linda Leung on the past 20 years of the PC industry, what lies ahead, and why he won't be buying a netbook.
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For millions of computer users, Scott Mueller is the first name that springs to mind when they want to find out how to repair or upgrade their machines. More than two million copies of Mueller's book Upgrading and Repairing PCs have been sold since it first came out in 1988. The 19th edition of the book, which is coveted by PC technicians, enthusiasts and students worldwide, is now available.

Mueller is president of Mueller Technical Research, an international research and corporate training firm. Since 1982, MTR has specialized in the industry's longest running, most in-depth, accurate and effective corporate PC hardware and technical training seminars, maintaining a client list that includes Fortune 500 companies, the U.S. and foreign governments, major software and hardware corporations, as well as PC enthusiasts and entrepreneurs.

Mueller is also co-author of CompTIA A+ 220-701 and 220-702 Cert Guide, a start-to-finish A+ preparation guide.

Mueller kindly took some time out of his busy schedule to talk to me about his thoughts on the past 20 years of the PC industry, what lies ahead, and why he won't be buying a netbook.

Linda Leung: Congratulations for your 20th year of publishing Upgrading and Repairing PCs. The next edition — the 19th — is out (December 2009), a little more than two years after the 18th edition. What do you consider are the most important changes in the PC business over the past 20 years, and also the past two years?

Scott Mueller: Thanks for the kind words! The PC business has changed dramatically over the last 20 years. Perhaps the two most dramatic changes are in performance and price. As an example, due to my having to work while traveling and teaching seminars, I've almost always used some sort of relatively high-end portable as my main "work" system (no netbooks for me). In 1989 I purchased an IBM PS/2 P70, a high end briefcase-sized portable PC that had a 20MHz '386 processor, a 120MB HD, and 4MB of RAM. That system retailed for $8,295 new, which is over $14,400 in today's dollars! The operating system was Windows/386 2.11, which retailed for $195 back then, or about $340 in today's dollars. Compare this to the relatively high end ThinkPad laptop I purchased this year that has a 2.8GHz dual-core processor, a 500GB hard drive, 4GB of RAM, and which retailed for only $1,300. It is running Windows 7 Pro, which today retails for $300.

Looking at these numbers tells me several things. The price dropped by over 10 fold in the last 20 years, while the performance increased by more than 140 times! Another interesting observation: While today's hardware is 10-times cheaper, the price of Windows has remained nearly the same! Today one can build or buy a complete quad-core desktop PC for under $600, while the copy of Windows 7 Pro or XP Pro I would install on it costs anywhere from $140 (OEM version) to $300 (retail version). If Microsoft had dropped Windows pricing to keep pace with falling price of PC hardware, Windows would (or *should*) cost around $30 today.

The dramatic fall in PC hardware pricing over the last 20 years has obviously made PCs more accessible and much more popular worldwide. On the other hand, the incredibly high price of Microsoft software such as Windows and Office has undoubtedly promoted the development of incredibly high-quality free and open-source alternatives such as Linux, OpenOffice, and others.

In the last two years, the primary changes have been the move from single core to dual- and quad-core processors in the mainstream, as well as increases in speed for things such as video, hard drive, and memory interfaces.

LL: Why do you think the book has sustained its popularity over the years? Many loyal readers buy each new edition as a matter of course. Does that surprise you?

SM: I don't take much for granted, so while I am not necessarily surprised, I am most definitely grateful and honored that people have made it so popular. I think that has happened for many reasons, starting with the fact that it was the first book of its kind on the market, and that it actually started life as an unpublished text originally written to support the seminars I was teaching. As such it had gone through several private iterations before being officially published by Que. Using the book directly in the hundreds upon hundreds of seminars I have taught has helped refine the explanations, analogies and organization, which have gone a long way in helping to make things easier for readers to understand. Another reason is that I have always been accessible to my readers, originally via e-mail and now through my Upgrading and Repairing forum http://forum.scottmueller.com.

LL: You must get a lot of attention when you attend computer-related events. What feedback do you generally get from readers? Any memorable moments or particular stories from readers about how the book has changed their lives?

SM: I get quite a lot of feedback from both readers and the students in the seminars I teach. There have been many letters and e-mails from people saying that the book helped them to get a new job, start a new career, and several have literally said it has changed their lives! Those types of messages are incredibly inspiring to me, and are a great deal of the reason that I have been able to continue working on the book all these years. Perhaps the most memorable moment at an event was the very first book signing I did at the Spring Comdex show in 1992. There was virtually no advance notice; Que put out a few signs early in the day that I would be there signing books, and I was worried that nobody would show up. To my surprise, there was literally a line of hundreds of people anxious to get a signed copy, something I'll never forget.

LL: What's your relationship with the major companies in the PC industry?

SM: Since I mostly write in-depth technical content and rarely review specific products, my primary relationship with most companies in the industry is as a customer, just like everybody else! Sure, I have a few contacts here and there, but most of my research is done independently, which helps me keep an open mind and a clear unbiased perspective on things.

LL: Some book reviewers have said that you give too much attention to Wintel (the Windows-Intel combination), and not enough to AMD and Linux. What's your view on that?

SM: I have always considered Upgrading and Repairing PCs a hardware book; as such it really doesn't cover Windows or Linux. But I do agree that the coverage of Intel is proportionally greater than the coverage of AMD, but so is Intel's impact on the industry. While the specific numbers vary quarter to quarter, Intel and AMD generally have about 80% and 20% of the PC processor market share respectively. This means that roughly four out of five PCs have Intel processors.

Intel's dominance isn't limited to processors; it also has a roughly 50% share of the PC graphics market, compared to about 30% for NVIDIA and 20% for AMD.

But there are many reasons other than pure market share that Intel's name seems to come up more often than AMD. PCs are built from many more components than just processors and GPUs [graphics processing units], and Intel is responsible for creating and/or leading the development of many of the other technologies, interfaces, and standards used in modern PCs. This includes interfaces like PCI (Peripheral Component Interconnect), PCI Express, AGP (Accelerated Graphics Port), and USB (Universal Serial Bus), technologies such as the Serial ATA AHCI (Advanced Host Controller Interface), APM/ACPI (Advanced Power Management/Advanced Configuration and Power Interface), AC'97 (Audio Codec '97) and HDAudio, Plug&Play BIOS, motherboard formfactors like ATX, microATX, and many, many more. Not to mention that Intel created the original processors and the x86 instruction set they use, and upon which all PCs are based.

Even so, AMD has proven to be a worthy competitor, and has developed several innovations of its own, most importantly the 64-bit extensions to the x86 instruction set, which Intel adopted for its own processors.

LL: In November 2009, Intel and AMD settled all antitrust litigation and patent cross-license disputes. They also signed a five-year cross-license agreement. What does all this mean to the consumer?

SM: In the short term, probably not much. But in the long term, it means that both companies can focus more on technology and engineering than on fighting with each other, which will hopefully result in more and better products.

LL: Will you be turning your attention to Apple Macs?

SM: I won't have to, since Apple has turned its attention to me! What I mean by that is that while Macs were once "different" from PCs, starting in 2006 Apple converted its entire computer product line over to Intel processors and chipsets. Since then Macs have used all of the same internal hardware that PCs do, meaning they have essentially become PCs.

Because Macs are PCs on the inside, the only real difference (besides looking fancier and costing up to twice as much <g>) is that most Macs run OS X, while most PCs run Windows. However, since the internal hardware is essentially the same, if you want you can install Windows on a Mac, or you can install OS X on a PC.

So whenever I encounter a Mac user who wants to know more about the hardware in their system, I remind them that their Mac is really just a PC on the inside, and I encourage them to get a copy of Upgrading and Repairing PCs!

LL: That’s a good point about Apple Macs. Coming back to the book, even after the 19th edition is released, I'm sure fans will be wondering when the 20th edition will be published. So when will that be?

SM: While I can't give an exact date, it will most likely be out about a year from when the 19th comes out.

LL: When the 20th edition is released, how different do you think the PC industry will be? Will netbooks replace laptops? Will Google make a sizable dent in the Wintel market with Chrome on Linux machines, and with its free cloud-computing apps? Will smartphones replace netbooks for users who want to be able to do simple Web browsing and work on cloud-computing apps? Will we be using our HD-TVs to watch YouTube videos and run our business apps?

SM: Over the short term, the industry evolves more in terms of evolution than revolution, so while there will undoubtedly be some new hardware and software technology on the market, most of that has already been in development. For example we'll have systems with USB 3.0, which is about 10 times faster than USB 2.0, and which has been in development for the last few years.

Netbooks won't replace laptops, and smartphones won't replace netbooks, since each of those market niches are distinctly different. For example, somebody who truly needs a portable system with a full-sized screen and keyboard as well as a higher powered processor and large hard drive would not want to use a netbook, myself included. However, as an accessory computer for doing limited work or e-mail while traveling, a netbook would be perfect.

In the low-end desktop PC, laptop, netbook, and possibly smartphone market, where cloud-based computing makes the most sense, Google will very likely put a dent in Microsoft's OS and browser market share, especially since the Google Chrome OS and application software will be free, compared to Microsoft's ridiculous pricing for its software such as Windows and Office.

I do envision more and more DVR (Digital Video Recorder) and other types of set-top boxes using the Internet to download and/or stream video from YouTube and many other sources, however they won't be used for running applications. On the other hand, I also envision more people connecting full-size HD-TVs to media center PCs or laptops, and using the TV as a large screen display.

LL: Do you think component and machine manufacturers over the years have made their products harder to hack by people who want to improve their performance?

SM: If you are thinking about game consoles, they are locked down both to prevent the loss of revenue due to piracy, and especially to prevent cheating or exploits in on-line gaming environments. If you are thinking DVRs (Digital Video Recorders) and other types of set-top boxes, those are typically locked down to prevent the copying of downloaded digital content such as movies, TV shows, etc. This is more to comply with the licensing requirements of the networks and film studios than anything else. But for the PC market in general, I don't really see any overall conspiracy to prevent people from upgrading, repairing, modifying or otherwise "hacking" their systems.

LL: How has the profile of your readers changed over the years? I'm guessing when the series was first published, it was devoured by geeks who wanted to learn more about their machines. Now there are tech-savvy consumers, and small business owners who need to maintain their own networks. Have you had to change your writing/presentation style as your audiences change/expand?

SM: I think my core readers have largely remained the same. That is they are PC enthusiasts who want to upgrade, repair, or build their own systems from scratch, as well as those who want to better or more completely understand all of the technology that goes into them. Many of my readers are technicians either by profession or avocation, that is they are upgrading and repairing systems for other people in addition to themselves, whether it be for work, for friends, for family, or all of the above. Because of that, my style of in-depth writing and comprehensive coverage has actually changed very little. I've never liked to skimp on the details, and I've always thought that even novice enthusiasts could be made to understand complex technologies, as long as the explanation was clear, concise, organized, and most importantly complete. The key to my writing is knowing what questions will come into the readers mind as they are reading, and answering them along the way; something I've learned from many years of teaching live seminars.

LL: The PC industry appears to be still very U.S.-centric. Whatever happened to the expected Asian invasion?

SM: Oh, it happened, but mostly on a manufacturing level and not necessarily a design, engineering or OEM level. Few people know this because the names on the components or systems are rarely the same as the companies that actually make them. Most components, circuit boards, and even complete systems are manufactured by EMS (Electronic Manufacturing Services) or ODM (Original Design Manufacturer), companies in China, especially Taiwan.

In fact Foxconn (a.k.a. Hon Hai Precision Industry) is the single largest manufacturer of computer components and systems worldwide, and makes everything from connectors to complete systems for a number of well-known OEMs.

LL: You're also co-author of CompTIA A+ 220-701 and 220-702 Cert Guide. Was writing that part of your interest in helping computer novices expand their education?

SM: I've always been interested in expanding education, as manifested by the hundreds upon hundreds of seminars I've taught over the years, as well as the fact that Upgrading and Repairing PCs originated as the textbook for those seminars. My connection to A+ runs even deeper than that. Several years ago one of the members of the committee that writes the A+ test questions told me that my Upgrading and Repairing PCs book was used as the behind-the-scenes "master reference" for the hardware questions on the test. No wonder the test seemed so strangely familiar when I took it. <g>

LL: What was the last PC that you upgraded?

SM: I'm constantly building, upgrading, and repairing systems. I've upgraded pretty much every system I've ever used, including the laptop I'm working on now. This one has only a larger hard drive and more memory (for now), but I had upgraded the processor, wireless network card, and even added internal Bluetooth to my previous laptop.

LL: Do your neighbors line up to ask you to fix their computers?

SM: I'll admit to doing a little bartering here and there, but in general I try to keep a low profile in that regard. <g>

LL: Final question: When will you retire?

SM: Considering all the enjoyment I get out of working on computers, as well as teaching and writing about them, most likely when I'm dead! <g>

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