When is a warranty not a warranty? In the high-tech world, it increasingly seems to be whenever a vendor decides that to honor it is no longer convenient.
A reader we'll call Mr. Down experienced one of the more depressing examples of this that I've heard recently. He wanted to improve the video performance of a Micron Technology Inc. PC he'd purchased earlier in the year. Mr. Down tried to get AGP (Accelerated Graphics Port) "Fast Write" mode to work and unsuccessfully attempted downloading various drivers. Seeing evidence that the problem might be the motherboard BIOS, Mr. Down also tried downloading a BIOS upgrade from Micron's upgrade, but it made no noticeable improvement.
Having tried valiantly to find how to get the fast writes working himself, Mr. Down finally filled out a support form on Micron's Web site explaining what he had tried and asking if the company had suggestions. He got a far different response than he expected. A Micron technical support representative sent him a message with a quote supposedly from the Micron Web site that BIOS upgrades were not recommended unless "absolutely necessary," as damage could result if they were done wrong. (Strangely, neither of us could ever actually find the particular warning the technician quoted anywhere on Micron's site, although there are certainly plenty of other disclaimers about the possible dire consequences of improperly upgrading the BIOS.) But the technician was just getting started.
"I also regret to inform you that you have now taken your system out of warranty as stated by the warranty," the Micron technical support representative wrote Mr. Down, adding long portions of warranty legalese. "We can only support a system in its original system configuration ... Thus, I am unable to help you in getting 'Fast Write' to work on your system. Thank you for contacting Micronpc.com Email Technical Support."
Because Mr. Down's PC seemed to be working as well as it had been before he'd downloaded, he found Micron's reaction hard to understand. "I think Micron is being unfair," he wrote. "If they'd asked me to downgrade the BIOS and/or the drivers, I would have. Canceling my warranty not only cuts me off from software support but also means no hardware warranty. So if the hard disk breaks down, I am now on my own."
As I mentioned last week, I get lots of gripes about broken warranties, far more than I can deal with. Mr. Down's experience, however, struck me as one in which I had to get involved. If a company can drop your warranty for downloading something from their own Web site, they'll always have an excuse for jettisoning their obligations. After all, had Mr. Down asked for help from Micron before he installed the latest drivers and BIOS, he would expect the technical support organization to tell him to do so.
My expectation when I contacted Micron was that it would disavow the technical support representative's actions, and I was right. "This was an unfortunate error on the part of one technical support representative, and not part of an overall policy from Micronpc.com," a company representative said. "According to the information you've provided us, the steps the customer took did not take his system out of warranty. It is not in our policy to void a warranty simply as a result of upgrading to a new BIOS. Due to the potential damage that can occur if a BIOS is installed incorrectly, we include a warning statement on our Web page, [but] in this case, as the customer's system was not impacted by the BIOS upgrade, his warranty was not affected."
Micron offered to reinstate Mr. Down's warranty, and he plans to take them up on that. So all's well that ends well, right? A technical support representative had a bad day, but it was an aberration. Some might even say Micron deserves kudos, because at least somebody there actually read a customer support query, given that lots of vendors don't appear to read their e-mail at all.
But what would have happened if I hadn't intervened in Mr. Down's case? If something on his PC broke and required warranty repair, I doubt he could have gotten it reinstated on his own. So what about all those situations where I'm not able to get involved? This may be an isolated case for Micron, but high-tech products that don't work and vendors who won't fix them happen every day.
The thing that bothers me most about Mr. Down's experience is the Uniform Computer Information Transactions Act (UCITA)-like approach the technician took to blowing him off. If we've gotten to the point where even the people who are trained to help you are going to quote hard-to-find or even unseeable legalese so you won't bother them, the future of high-tech warranties is going to be grim.
Got a complaint about how a vendor is treating you? Contact InfoWorld's reader advocate, Ed Foster, at email@example.com.