This device will self destruct in…

Remember the classic scene in each Mission Impossible episode when the “device” carrying the mission assignment would self destruct in 5 seconds? So many of us loved that gag, because, from the average consumer’s perspective, it was absurd to imagine such a fancy device intended to destroy itself by design. Of course, it seems plausible for the equipment of a top secret team of elite agents. It’s a stretch to think we, as simple civilians, would have self-destroying equipment. (This tamper-proof USB storage device is the only one I’ve heard about in recent years.) Other than my old PC’s power supply*, I don’t recall the last time a piece of my electronics blew itself to smithereens.

This was all brought to mind when I was recently shopping for a new MP3 player. As always, I read user reviews to see what is working well for people like me. (In general, I love user reviews, but I realize they must be taken with a grain of salt.) In reading dozens of reviews (positive and negative) on many products, and by reading the manufacturers’ own descriptions and specifications, it occurred to me that these devices have a lot shorter planned lifespan than our parents and grandparents’ stereos. In many reviews, it sounded like Mission Impossible all over again. “I had it for two weeks and then it wouldn’t turn on,” “the screen was blank,”” it was barely past the 90 day warranty”, etc. Over a year ago, PC World noted only average reliability in their survey of MP3 players, No Stars in MP3 Players Reliability.

There are a lot off-brand electronics out there these days as well. While big-name manufacturers generally have better merchandise, the price tag usually matches the quality. So there is big business in being the low-cost copycat for electronic devices, and these often appeal to newcomers who aren’t really sure what they’re buying. Lured by the price and a feature list claiming the same bling as the big dogs, folks consuming these knock-offs are the ones surprised and bitterly disappointed when their new digital “investment” kicks the bucket in three months. In hindsight, perhaps I should have added to 4 Hard Lessons a 5th: your new digital gadget won’t work forever. It may not even last until the warranty period is out. But it might not matter, because throwing it away may actually be easier than trying to get it repaired/replaced.

This raises today’s question: at what price point does an electronic device become truly “disposable” to you? By disposable, I mean “expected and accepted” disposal, like tissues. With a tissue, when you pull it from the box/package and something isn’t right (e.g.: the 2 plies aren’t together correctly, or perhaps one ply is missing or crumpled) you don’t think about it. You just throw it away because what it costs you is next to nothing. So what’s the price at which it is acceptable for your device to fail right out of the gate? What about after 3 months? 6 months? 9 months? 12 months? When is the last time you had a device fail? Did it meet your expectations? Perhaps more importantly, do you think our expectations as consumers are in line with manufacturers’ plans for our expectations?

Now consider that there are a lot of prospective technology buyers who still expect the thing to work pretty much indefinitely. I admit, I’m astonished to read about the failure rates of many portable MP3 players, and I’m acclimated to technology obsolescence. But I wonder if we’re weighing more than obsolescence issues here. Obsolescence is when something still works as originally intended but is too old to be of use. Today, electronics are simply failing (either due to cheap hardware or carelessly written firmware), and perhaps the big brand-name manufacturers don’t care so much, since market trends show that the user will want to replace the device about the time it fails. Money in, money out, all according to plan. If everyone’s expectations are met, everyone stays content with the trend. But the B-rate, off-brand knock-off gadgets won’t even live up to the trend. And that’s a big shift in electronics thinking for many who grew up in the days when electronics were made with solid-state components and only failed due to lightning or falling out the back of grandpa’s truck.

I exit this experience with a shiny new MP3 player from one of the leading manufacturers. I’m content with my purchase, having done my research and intentionally avoided the cheaper brands (because I want and expect my device to work for some time to come.) But I’m also still pondering: how much would be acceptable to spend on a device that I never expect to work beyond day 1, especially knowing time is money when dealing with problems, repairs, returns, warranties, etc.? What’s your threshold?

* It exploded like a firecracker one night back in May, shooting an impressive 6-inch flame out the back as it fried itself. Since it was ten years old, I figure it had reached the end of its life anyway. It went out in style, with a bang… literally.


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