I had a problem with the power steering on my old Toyota, so I took it to a mechanic, and he told me, "We'll try and fix it." "Excuse me, you'll try?" "Right, we'll try, but if we can't, we'll charge you anyway."
That exchange would be ridiculous, of course, and it didn't happen. But scams like that really do happen every day in the world of technology. Buyers of PCs, networking gear, cameras, cell phones and everything else that's digital put up with levels of service and support that would never be acceptable in other parts of the economy.
In many cases, we don't even have the right to sue. If you're one of the few buyers who has actually read the user license agreement that comes with boxed and downloaded software you know that vendors typically disclaim responsibility for the quality of their products. And as the law is generally applied today, that means an aggrieved customer can't sue. Would we allow, say, an auto manufacturer, the same luxury?
The Tech Support Two-Step
Even those of us who know our way around a PC or a digital camera need a bit of help now and then. And why not? We've certainly paid enough for our products. But for most of the tech industry, customer support is seen as a profit-eating cost.
I needed to add a backup computer to my home network, last month. Should have been easy, but it wasn't, so I called D-Link, the maker of my wireless router. Since it's now out of warranty, I was told I'd have to pay for support. Fair enough. But, then the techie told me she couldn't guarantee a fix -- but I would still be charged. Forget it.
I eventually fixed it myself. But you've got to wonder how many consumers either agreed to pay the unfair charge, or simply gave up and bought a new router.
People spend thousands of dollars on their cars, so a repair bill of a few hundred dollars, while painful, is just a small percentage of the acquisition cost. But spending $35 for help with a $90 router that you'll probably have to replace in a year or two anyway is outrageous.
Black Screen of Death Blunder
But to really understand the meaning of inadequate support, check out the "black screen of death" scare. In case you missed it, users of Windows XP, Windows Vista and Windows 7 have been reporting an ugly glitch that wiped out much of their desktops, leaving only a black screen and a PC that wouldn't fully boot.
A UK-based security firm wrongly blamed a Microsoft security update for the problem and then backed off when its theory didn't stand up to analysis. So what's my beef?
Microsoft moved very quickly to tell the world the black screen wasn't its fault -- but has done nothing to solve the problem, which is what users really care about. What's more, a simple analysis of Microsoft's basic support policy leaves me wanting.
Consumers who buy Windows from a retailer are entitled to 90 days of free support. After that, they have to pay. Well, that's fine for anyone who purchased Windows 7 in the last six weeks, but it fails to cover the tens of millions of Vista and XP users.
Then there are the millions of Windows users whose computers came with Windows already installed. They don't get free support from Microsoft; that's up to the computer maker. That works for a new PC, but if you're running anything but Windows 7 chances are very high that the computer is out of warranty. You're out of luck.
Meanwhile, Microsoft helpfully suggests that consumers use the self-help tools on its Web to diagnose and fix problems. Hello? My PC is frozen and you're telling me to go online for a fix. Good grief.
My $366 Windows 7 Upgrade
Consider the fall launch of Windows 7 and the so-called $119 upgrade. In my case, the real cost of upgrading my notebook is at least $366 -- more than half the cost of the PC -- because of incompatibilities with existing application software and peripherals.
You can't just blame this one on Microsoft. Beta versions of Windows 7 were available to hardware and software makers well ahead of the October launch; so given the significant similarities of Vista and its successor, I strongly suspect that fixing drivers and other incompatibilities would not have been all that difficult. But why bother when consumers are willing to be milked for even more money?
I ran Microsoft's Windows 7 upgrade advisor and checked with a number of software vendors and peripheral makers. Here's what I found:
Photoshop Elements 6 hasn't been tested with Windows 7, so Adobe suggested I spend $100 to upgrade to version 8. Then add another $120 to replace my wireless ergonomic keyboard and mouse from Logitech and another $27 for a new USB hub from D-Link.
That brings the cost to $366 and I'm not even counting the price of replacing Open Office (a free open-source office productivity suite not compatible with Windows 7) with Microsoft Office.
Sure, I can skip the upgrade. But there's something radically wrong with an industry that does so little to help buyers once they've opened their wallets.
San Francisco journalist Bill Snyder writes frequently about business and technology. He welcomes your comments and suggestions. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.