As people live longer, their gadgets live shorter – ever asked yourself why?
There’s a great article out there all about Amazon’s Jeff Bezos. Or perhaps we should really say: Jeff Bezos’ Amazon.
In it we learn how the creator of the web’s most iconic tech-driven shop has supposedly prohibited the use of PowerPoint presentations in the company. Instead, six-page articles must be written by disconcerted employees to ensure that thought is clearly developed and expounded.
The technology of PowerPoint, so the position goes, being an impediment to usefully coherent narrative.
You can read this article here. You’ll find it quite an eye-opener. You’ll find out in a minute why I’ve mentioned it.
Well, hell no. Let me tell you right now. If this ever gets to Mr Bezos’ eyes, this is my customer equivalent of that six-page presentation.
For in the meantime, I’ve been fighting off the temptation to get really cross. With the gentleman’s company in question and with others of a similar bent. My story ranges from rants against housing trusts, local councils and the aforementioned tech corps to mobile-phone providers, vendors and manufacturers. I’m not a happy bunny at the moment – and, of course, my anger is my responsibility. So I know that my surviving and coming out the other side of these first world pains is not your job to engineer. But as a small and insignificant customer of many tech firms in the past and present, one day one or two of you might want to learn.
My latest unhappy troubles relate to an erstwhile rather reliable holiday companion of virtual e-content, my 3G keyboarded Kindle. Bought for me from Tesco by my eldest son as a birthday present in June 2011, it cost him 152 quid. It stopped being quite so reliable a couple of days ago. After a few weeks ignored in the bustle of ending summer hols, I turned it back on. First, it wouldn’t connect to 3G any longer (I’ve had it explained to me that this – in the presence of an available wifi connection – is now a feature and not the bug I thought it was); nevertheless, I religiously recharged it and everything seemed OK. Then yesterday it began to suffer from what Microsoft users of ancient Windows product will surely empathise with: in this case the WSOD, or White Screen Of Death, for those Kindlers still uninitiated in such matters.
As Which? usefully points out, my contractual relationship is not with Amazon the manufacturer but Tesco the vendor. You can imagine my surprise, then, when I phoned Tesco’s customer services helpline to be automatically transferred directly to Amazon. The Amazon customer services lady went on to hand me over to a member of the specialised Kindle team when she realised my issue was not of simple resolution. He attempted to carry out some procedures to reawaken my Kindle, sadly to no avail. He then offered me an upgrade: a new Kindle in exchange, which I would have to pay for. I said I would be quite happy with a replacement rather than an upgrade – for one thing, I liked the physical keyboard (something he agreed he did too) – but was told no examples were available any more.
I also suggested that although the guarantee was no longer valid, UK legislation had something to say on the reasonable and therefore merchantable quality of any product of certain value. He referred me to EU legislation which he said gave me only two years. I suggested, perhaps inexactly, that in the UK we had up to six years, certainly to complain. We then agreed my query on Amazon’s position should be communicated higher up, and also agreed it should be received via email. I now have in my possession an email address I can email – pretty much the same one, in fact, I emailed a while ago in relation to an Apple iPod Amazon refused point-blank to take responsibility for.
I’ve decided, in the end, to wait anon. In the first instance, I’ll be going to Tesco tomorrow. I still have the original receipt; they are the vendor; and I already know Amazon’s posture. Time to find out, instead, what Tesco thinks. After all, Amazon – alongside many others – truly believe it’s a good business model to make expensive objects which we are to be convinced must last only two years before we replace them.
I mean even my father – my World-War-II-scarred father, who is incapable of throwing away a piece of wood, a random cable or a nail on the off-chance they might one day be of use – was heard to say on being told our freezer seemed to have given up the ghost: “Oh well, it’s nine years old now. Only to be expected.”
To cut what is surely becoming a boring long story short, what’s clear here is whilst human life expectancies are lengthening from decade to decade, their gadgets are becoming evermore short-lived. So why might this be so? And what might the broader implications be?
I’m sure all of us, all of my generation at least, can remember stories of washing-machines that lasted fifteen years; fridges that lasted thirty; cars that were made and remade out of this and that for far longer than anyone expects these days. Yet even washing-machines these days don’t seem to get to the age of five. Whilst iPods and Kindles and mobile phones and tablets various barely get beyond the magic two. Not to speak of all those tales of cars whose engines disintegrate at seven.
It’s a problem – a serious problem; a paradox too.
As already pointed out, whilst human beings expect to live longer, their societies’ artefacts fall apart earlier. Now I’m sure you’ll have read many articles which talk about how society is specialising itself out of sustainability. As you can see, I’ve written some of them myself. But this thing I speak of today … well, it’s slightly different. Here, it’s not the evil corporations maximising their profits. Here, it’s a different thesis altogether: faster washing-machines, quicker cars, smaller gadgets, brighter screens … all these aspects and more, coupled with the fearful violences of corporate capitalisms, simply make it more difficult to produce stuff which lasts. Who, after all, would expect an under-the-counter freezer – which cost the same as my Kindle did my son – to function for barely two years? And yet when it comes to the Kindle, or the iPod or the Blackberry, we gaily accept an upgrade we must pay for as compensation for a product which – be honest and frank about it! – has failed any test of time you’d prefer to sanction.
There will come a time – I can see it even if you cannot – when our objects will have such short lifetimes that the consumer laws will have to be changed to accommodate the inability of the manufacturers to develop products which survive even a full year. Mark my words. Bookmark this post. And come back to it, three or four years down this miserable line.
Bezos is right of course: writing six pages of thoughtful observations has the potential to add far more value than any number of fancy bullet points. But in the world his ilk and he tend to find themselves moving around, they’re as bound by its constrictions and competitivenesses as much as we consumers are befuddled by their very same massaged marketing messages. Whilst he may indeed preach no PowerPoint in the thoughtful sides and moments of his companies, in their artefacts and their routinely mundane activities these PowerPoint mindsets have clearly become the order of the day.
Otherwise his customer services wouldn’t offer an upgrade after a bit more than two years of careful usage of a product which costs what many freezers do. Instead, they would be trained to say: “Let’s repair or replace or refurbish this in a sustainable way. Let’s look after a customer – and let’s also recognise that the future of our shared living-space, the planet we live on, is just as much a customer we choose to value as that <del style="margin: 0px; padding: 0px; border: 0px; outline: 0px;">irritating</del> <del style="margin: 0px; padding: 0px; border: 0px; outline: 0px;">well-meaning</del> thoughtful Miljenko Williams, who always feels obliged to complain so very very much.”
Oh. And just as a by-the-by. That freezer even my father now believes is expected to give up the ghost after nine years … well, after a week left to its own devices, it’s begun to happily work once again.
There’s a lesson in that.
We should learn it before it’s too late.
Update to this post: last night I described over at Amazon’s help-forum pages my recent experience with gadgets. Part of what I commented went as follows:
[...] In the last year, I’ve had a 16-month Sony Ericsson 150 GBP phone stop working, changed for a new one under guarantee by T-Mobile; I’ve had an 8-month Sony 110 GBP phone stop working, repaired under guarantee by Phones4U; and I’ve had a Blackberry 100 GBP phone, still under 2-year guarantee, not repaired by Carphone Warehouse or Blackberry. I’ve also been batted to and fro between Apple and Amazon with respect to an iPod Amazon sold me via an Audible offer, and whose home button stopped working reliably. Then there were the two Acer netbooks which developed parallel faults at the same time just outside their 1-year guarantee periods. Now I may have been particularly unlucky with respect to gadgets, but I suspect I haven’t been especially. I do have a Gateway laptop which has lasted four solid years without pain. And a Dell desktop soldiers on with Linux. And an Asus netbook is particularly well-made. Not all misery up here in Chester …
Really, all I’m trying to say in my long-winded way is that a 1- or even 2-year guarantee period is a pretty poor promise when you’re forking out 150 GBP. At least when we talk of products which have less bleeding-edge technologies. No one in their right mind would accept buying a new fridge every 18 months. So why do similarly-costing techie-type products enjoy the freedom to break down and be disposed of after the same period of time? It’s not a question you or I or, indeed, Amazon will be able to answer – but it *is* a question I strongly feel needs to be addressed. Especially when I have yet another faulty gadget to add to my recent and not so recent list.
I suppose that all which is left for me to ask is: am I particularly unlucky – or is the above litany of failure something each of us is rapidly having to become both seamlessly familiar with and resignedly used to? Any of yous out there reading this post had as bad a series of experiences as ourselves?