Prodcast. That's the name of the tool Microsoft would love to get under the noses of as many tech-buying consumers as it possibly could. The idea is to better inform buyers in advance about products so they can make smarter decisions or be less resentful if their brand-new HDTV is just weeks away from being upstaged by a newer model, causing its price to drop by 20%. "Buyer's remorse be-gone" would be a decent slogan.
Prodcast is set for its public reveal at the Knowledge Discovery and Data mining conference in August. And while the name's admittedly clunky, since it's in no way related to podcasting, it does sound as though it will provide real utility to consumers.
The tool scans a large historical database of product histories, and then makes smart guesses about which way the price of a piece of high-tech hardware will vary in the coming months. The guess it reports is a simple number, expressed as a percentage. Prodcast would tell you, for instance, that it's xx% confident the product you've specified will cost within a price bracket it specifies for the next month (or whatever time scale you choose). To back this up, it also displays historical price graphs for your chosen product and others like it, so you get a visual sense for how volatile the price tends to be.
It's something Microsoft Research has put together, and though it's not necessarily a consumer-facing product at first, the expectation is that it'll be plugged in to price comparison sites in the near future. To get a feel for what it may be like, check out the "Buyers Guide" from MacRumors, which offers a simple "buy/don't buy" tip for Apple products based on when they were last upgraded, what recent rumors have surfaced, and some handy charts.
Kudos to Microsoft for trying to help the consumer, of course, but there's obviously a vested interest here. Most MS products are run on someone else's hardware—and MS can't control how Sony or HP or Dell prices its PCs, nor how big-box retailers may discount that price at an unspecified later date. It also can't control how often a manufacturer will churn out a slightly upgraded laptop, say, with a better graphics card, CPU, more storage, and a sleeker look, for $50 less. And while Apple buyers regularly express disdain that a newer iDevice has come out soon after they make the plunge, Apple has such a limited range and reliable update schedule that informed consumers should be able to time purchases accordingly. Given that new PCs arrive all the time from a long list of big names, the timing is trickier in the PC market.
It may seem counterintuitive for a brand like Microsoft (already resented for its fabled "blue screens of death," numerous malware infections, and wonky interfaces) to associate itself with a "buyer beware" service. Progress will march on, and your shiny new laptop will be outclassed quicker than you think. But Microsoft says tests suggest that helping consumers time their purchases results in "significant savings," even if it does suggest that it's somewhat complex to buy a PC or other computer equipment.
So this may be the next step in Microsoft's campaign to convince us PCs are a better value than their peers, although the tool will cover a multitude of products. But there's one universal truth that applies no matter what you're in the market for: Caveat emptor.
[Image: Flickr user pcsiteuk]