When Is The Best Not The Best?

I had what started off as an extremely productive weekend. I got a lot of work done at my job, did some house stuff, changed the oil on the car, and was otherwise efficient and in a good mood. As a reward, I decided to play some more Forza 2, a game I’m reviewing for PTD Magazine. I’ve been enjoying Forza, and approached my Xbox 360 with some enthusiasm. This should have been a warning sign. Because, inevitably, as soon as I turned the machine on, 3 blinky red lights appeared, and the machine was officially as dead as a doornail.

The machine was one year and one month old. Translated, that means the machine was one month out of warranty. 45 minutes on the phone with Microsoft customer service in Durban or Chennai or somewhere resulted in them agreeing to drop the repair fee from $140 to $65.

Now, there are a few directions in which I could take this article. First would be the observation that I would rather simply not use an Xbox 360 than pay $140 to get it fixed, and that from Microsoft’s perspective, asking for that much seems sort of, well, goofy. You’re already losing money on the console. The only way you reach profitability is if I buy games. But this isn’t really a topic about which there’s very much to say. Philosophically, it’s not actually surprising to be asked to pay money to fix a machine that’s out of warranty.

Perhaps a little more interesting is that they dropped the price simply because I bitched about it. That seems to me to be a poor customer service experience by definition. It’s used up 45 minutes of their support time, and I’m left with that “just negotiated to buy a new car” sort of feeling. Maybe if I’d stayed on the phone for an hour they’d have dropped the price by another 25%? Will someone who reads this article who did pay $140 to fix their machine now be furious and feel ripped off by Microsoft? It just seems to me that by removing certainty from the equation you’re making the entire experience more hateful, and squandering company goodwill on something that, in the long run, is pretty picayune. Either make the transaction completely painless from the beginning (“Here’s your new Xbox 360,”) or stick to your guns (“We’re sorry that you don’t want to pay the repair fee, sir. Have a nice day.“) But making the transaction turn into a negotiation worthy of an Algerian souk just seems pennywise and pound foolish.

But the most interesting question to me is that of consumer electronics and reliability. Now, I’m picking on Microsoft here because I own a console that blew up, but I presume that once 10 or 20 people buy PS3’s we will see similar reliability problems with those machines as well. Consider how unusual it is to hear of nonportable consumer electronic devices that just stop working a year after purchase. How old is your DVD player? How old is your stereo receiver? 2 years old? 5? 10? I still have VCRs that work after 20 years, and those have more moving parts than an Xbox. As long as we’re talking about game consoles, I still have Atari 2600s that work just fine. Yet the Xbox 360 has developed such a reputation for bursting into (virtual) flame that its failure mode has garnered a nickname and a Wikipedia article.

This is the collision of two worlds: the world of computer hardware and software, where the people developing on the “bleeding edge” expect some number of problems, and the world of consumer electronics, where things are supposed to just work. I’m extremely unimpressed with any company pushing products that lean towards the former rather than the latter.

I understand the technical reasons why the Xbox 360 is prone to hardware failure: Microsoft chose a design where they crammed a bunch of extremely high end equipment into as small a case as they could manage. Their engineering decisions create unreasonable amounts of heat, and unreasonable amounts of heat lead to an unreasonably low mean time between failures. That there are technical reasons for the console bursting into flame whenever a goldfinch looks at it sideways doesn’t make it acceptable.

In the meantime, we can compare this to the Nintendo Wii, which, through conservative design and engineering puts out nearly no heat, and certainly has not (yet) garnered a reputation for being unreliable.

All of which leads me to the question: what good is the most advanced graphics subsystem in the world if you’re incapable of packaging it in a way that performs reliably for an acceptable period of time?