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THE GRIPE LINE: You've been cut off

THE GRIPE LINE: You've been cut off

When does a vendor's responsibility to fix a broken product end? Is it over when the warranty runs out?

Readers frequently complain about vendors that are unable or unwilling to fix a product, even if the customer is willing to pay for the repairs. The industry's expectation that customers will just buy new equipment rather than fix an old product can lead to some problematic situations, particularly when the customer's warranty or service contact has just expired.

One reader discovered this when the back light on the integrated monitor on an IBM NetVista system failed. As the $US2800 system had been purchased 13 months earlier, the warranty had just recently expired. Worse yet, IBM informed him it would cost about $2000 to fix it, because it would require replacing the entire monitor.

"The only option given to us was to spend over $2000 to replace the integrated flat-screen monitor," the reader wrote. "We expect more from IBM. If after a little over 13 months a component that costs over $2000 fails, we should not be left out in the cold having to throw out a $2800 machine. It is not reasonable to tell a consumer they should receive no assistance from IBM in this situation."

An IBM spokesman said the reader was an unfortunate victim of rare circumstances. "It's an industry-wide issue with any device that uses a flat-panel display, but the bottom line is that the back light can't be replaced separately," he said. "It's extremely rare for it to fail so soon, as we generally see a five to seven-year life span on the back light."

Falling outside of a warranty or service contract can cause other unexpected problems, as one reader discovered when a six-year-old 3Com Lanplex 2500 switch failed and brought down his company's network. 3Com support technicians were able to determine that the reader needed a replacement chassis, and the reader tried to have a replacement unit shipped overnight. "The tech informed us that the only way they would give next-day shipping on hardware was if you had a service contract on the piece, otherwise they would only give three to five-day delivery on replacement parts," the reader wrote. "We informed him of the gravity of our situation, that our whole network was down, and that we would be willing to pay any expediting fees to get a replacement chassis sent to us overnight."

After much back-and-forth, the only solution 3Com offered was for the reader to first sign up for a service contract and then he could reorder the replacement chassis for overnight delivery.

Fortunately, the reader was able to find a reconditioned Lanplex 2500 chassis for sale on the Internet at a fraction of the $7000 3Com was going to charge him. But the experience did not leave him a happy camper.

So how do customers protect themselves? Must they take out extended-service contracts on old equipment and look for products that come with a lifetime warranty?

Even that might not be enough as the industry redefines just what "lifetime" means. A reader who thought he had a "Limited Lifetime" warranty on an SMC network card was surprised to read the fine print on SMC's site that said: "The Limited Lifetime warranty covers a product during the life of that product, which is defined as the period of time during which the product is an ‘Active' SMC product."

"This allows a company to define the warranty period as whatever length of time they choose," he wrote. "As soon as the product ceases to be profitable, it can be discontinued and is no longer in warranty."

Fixing old products is something the information technology industry has generally tried to avoid, but now, more than ever, businesses want to be able to keep using products that work. Perhaps manufacturers should start allowing users to decide when a product is too old or obsolete to repair.


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