The computer industry loves to talk about the rapid pace of change of the marketplace, but in some instances it can appear to be less a matter of technical innovation and more a case of planned obsolescence. Consider the case of an IT manager we'll call Mr Brown. In June 1995, Brown purchased a Hewlett-Packard NetServer Model LF, one of a number of HP NetServers his company purchased during the past four years.
"We always tried to get a complete HP solution, without other vendor components, so we wouldn't run into any problems with a non-supported third-party product," Brown said.
The Model LF had an HP RAID controller with three 2Gb disk drives configured as a single 4Gb array and three empty drive bays for future expansion.
Brown was delighted with the Model LF's performance and the service he received from HP under its three-year warranty - until he recently tried to expand the array with two more 2Gb drives. Brown knew that more recent Netserver models had a different design for the disk drive array, but he was still surprised to be told that the disk drives for the Model LF array had been discontinued.
"HP doesn't offer the drive any more at all," Brown told me when we first talked. "The only option the company has is an external expansion cabinet that will wind up costing me double what I budgeted for this upgrade. So I've got to explain that to my CFO."
By the time he talked to me, Brown had already contacted HP - both directly and through his reseller - and spent a lot of time looking for an alternative. Duplicates of the actual disk drives could be found, but each drive would require a hot-swappable mounting tray to fit in the drive bay - and that component was unique to HP and no longer on the parts list. Eventually, both Brown's reseller and I discovered a limited quantity of the drives with mounting trays available through HP's service group, but at a list price almost double what Brown had budgeted.
"That still means I have to justify spending the extra money, and at this point it's pretty ludicrous to pay that much for a 2Gb drive," Brown said. "If I have to justify spending more money, I'm better off going with the external unit and getting 4Gb drives, because it won't cost that much more. So basically HP is forcing me down the road it wants me to go, rather than the upgrade path I planned on when I bought the system."
Left high and dry
HP's explanation, you'll not be surprised to hear, was that technology marches on.
"The reality is this market does move very fast, and that can lead to some situations like this where the customer can be somewhat between a rock and a hard place," said Paul Morgan-Witts, accessories marketing manager for HP's NetServer Division in the US. "But we don't leave people high and dry, and the key thing here is that while the LF is no longer available, he does have alternatives."
But why is the alternative to the original drives priced so high? Morgan-Witts says HP has a policy of supporting all products for at least five years, but once they cease to be marketed products they are moved into the service arena, where the pricing structure is different and probably more expensive. The priority is to keep a reserve for warranty repairs.
Because Brown's NetServer LF wasn't broken, the fact that it was still under warranty didn't help him in this situation. But he could not help but feel that something was not right about that.
"Here HP has discontinued a product that I have still in warranty, and it is forcing me to take this more expensive path," Brown said. "The computer industry is moving very quickly, but the industry has to realise business doesn't run on its time frame." Brown will get no argument from me. How about you?