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No More Busted Boxes

If the growing push for extended warranties is any indication, computer product quality is quietly declining. My advice? Buyers beware.

One of my computers died recently. Or rather, died again. Of course, this final death occurred one month after the extended warranty expired. Why do I share (indeed dwell) on this experience? Because this may have happened to you, too. Indeed, I think this has been happening to a lot of us of late—too many of us, way too often. So, allow me, dear reader, to share a short medical history of my now-dead notebook; a history that may sound all too familiar.

The computer arrived with a DOA (dead on arrival) CD-RW/DVD drive. Over the next 36 months I had to replace the keyboard, the motherboard, the CD-RW/DVD drive (again), the LCD screen, and the hard drive. The extended warranty resurrected the computer each time something failed, each time the computer died. Each death posed varying degrees of inconvenience, ranging from several days of “downtime” (what attorneys might call “loss of companionship” in a wrongful death lawsuit) to hours of additional work to rebuild the system and to reload software and data files.

Expectation of Failure and the Extended Warranty

In retrospect, what surprises me most about the multiple deaths of this computer was my willingness to tolerate the inconveniences. My attitude was that this is a computer and, alas, stuff happens. Then again, had this been a car or a cell phone, I would have been screaming at the company that sold me the product.

Of course, I could dismiss the ongoing experience with this computer as an anomaly. But as it turns out I cannot, because I have other data suggesting this was not a unique experience: I bought the same notebook computer for my son when he went to college three years ago; the two identical computers were purchased within one month of one another. My son also experienced several hardware deaths with his computer: two new keyboards, a new motherboard, and a new CD-DVD drive.

Fortunately, we bought the extended warranty for both computers. Fortunately, we paid an extra 10 to 15 percent—a 10 to 15 percent surcharge, that is—to be sure that the computers we bought would work for 36 months. Or, if they would not work, at least they could be fixed.

My now dead notebook was maybe the 14th desktop or notebook computer I’ve owned since 1983. Unlike the preceding 13, this was the first to die of hardware failure (recurring hardware failure), as opposed to technical obsolescence.

Perhaps I should have anticipated this problem. When I bought these computers, the manufacturer strongly encouraged the extended warranty. Until that day I had never purchased an extended warranty for hardware. Sure, like everyone else, I had experienced (and anticipated) software problems. But, regardless of manufacturer, the hardware had always been reliable—until I purchased the new computers for myself and my son three years ago.

Sadly, extended warranties for technology products seem pro forma these days. The manufacturers imply that you really need one, both in their ads and during the sale process. Whether you buy an expensive notebook or entry-level desktop, shop online, or go to a computer reseller, the last stop in the purchase process is the pitch for the warranty. Like it or not, extended warranties are now a hidden a cost of computing, much like the fuel surcharges on an airplane ticket or the special taxes that cities add to monthly cell phone bills.

Clearly, the extended warranties are an insurance policy for users, protection against the possibility (probability?) of hardware failure. No doubt, extended warranties are also a nice source of extra revenue for firms in the increasingly competitive hardware business. But at what cost to buyers and to corporate reputations?

Déjà Vu All Over Again?

Think back for a moment, to some 20 years ago when all this began. Do you recall the never-ending comparisons between cars and computers? The recurring theme: “If the auto industry were as productive and as innovative as the computer industry, we’d all be driving a Rolls that gets 300 miles to the gallon and costs $300.” Yet interestingly, while cars continue to get more expensive and computers less expensive, car warranties have improved; computer warranties have not.

In other words, over the past two decades, following the consumer uproar about poor quality and planned obsolescence in the auto industry, car quality has improved: Auto manufacturers have more confidence in their products, ergo long warranties. Concurrently, the short warranties for computers suggest (or leave open for inference) that quality may have declined in the computer industry: less confidence in the hardware, ergo short warranties. Admittedly, the price points that separate cars and computers allow auto manufacturers more flexibility to pad their cost structure to include (or hide) warranty service in the price of a car.

You Get What You Demand

Still, in the broad context, even as price declines and performance and functionality improves, computers remain a major consumer, corporate, and campus expense. There are not many products in my home or office that cost as much as my computer. Is it reasonable, then, for me to expect that anything I buy for $1,000 to $2,000 (or more) should last—should work—for at least three years? Yes, it is.

So, as we begin 2005, let’s resolve to send a message to computer manufacturers: We’re fed up with hardware products that crash, and with the surcharge reflected in extended warranties. We want better. The manufacturers can—indeed must—do better.

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