How would you feel if your new car's brakes worked intermittently? Then when you questioned the dealer, you were informed the manual clearly states that the performance of the brakes can vary. It seems that's how some software and hardware companies treat their customers.
Visit almost any major software manufacturer's Web site and you'll probably discover a page where you can download patches, fixes for bugs and updates. Maybe you naively think the company released the software, discovered the bug afterward, and then was kind enough to post a fix online.
The truth is that in the fiercely competitive world of computers, there's tremendous pressure to get new product out the door as soon as possible. The urgency is so great that it's not uncommon for a company to knowingly release software that contains bugs, with the intention of posting some sort of patch on their Web site later.
This stinks. When you buy a product--any product--it seems only logical to expect a complete product that works. But that isn't always the case in the computer business.
What can you do to protect yourself? First, investigate both the product and the dealer before you buy. Ask friends and associates for recommendations. People with computers typically have strong opinions about a particular dealer or product's performance.
Determine what kind of warranty the manufacturer provides, if any. Find out who fulfills the warranty's assurances if there is a problem. Often the store where you purchase the computer product will not handle warranty issues; you have to go to the manufacturer for service and support after the sale.
Warranties on computer products--especially software--are notoriously weak. Many simply guarantee that the product will perform in a manner close to what the documentation says. Usually, there's no warranty--either express or implied--with respect to the quality.
The good news is that more software titles and hardware vendors, especially from smaller companies eager to get your business, guarantee full satisfaction for periods ranging from 30 to 90 days.
You also need to find out how much you'll have to pay for service after the sale. The days of free support calls are all but gone.
Companies want to discourage unnecessary support calls, such as the one that ends with, "Oops, I guess the printer wasn't plugged in." But suppose you agree to pay $25 for a support call and the tech doesn't solve your problem? Most companies still expect you to pay the $25 even if you fail to get what you paid for.
Many software companies, including Adobe, Microsoft, Quarterdeck and Symantec, offer trial versions of their programs that you can download from their Web sites. These are usually full versions that either expire after a test period or are offered with the save or print features disabled. After you download the trial version, you can put it through its paces to see if it's a program you're willing to buy.
Computer dealers may worry about people who take home software, install it, then bring it back for a refund. But shop around. Although "no refunds" is still the standard, some stores have more liberal return policies than others. Also, many retailers will let you try a program in the store so you have some idea of what you'll be buying.
Most important: If you think you've been taken, don't back down.
Contact the company's public relations or corporate communications director. It's his or her job to spread the good news about the company, and your bad news may be exactly what the company is trying to squelch.
If that doesn't help, your next stop should be the Better Business Bureau. You can file complaints at your local office or online at http://www.bbb.org/. Your complaint will be forwarded to the appropriate Better Business Bureau based on the ZIP Code of the company involved, or to the national Council of Better Business Bureaus.
Most state attorney general offices will also provide mediation services to help consumers resolve complaints against businesses. Like the BBB, the office can also provide information about other complaints that have been filed against a particular business.
If you're not satisfied, don't keep quiet. Somewhere you'll find someone who'd rather solve your problem (and has the power to do so) than listen to you gripe. Maybe it doesn't seem worth the trouble, but it's also a matter of principle. Until we collectively say, "We're not gonna take it anymore," some companies will go right on charging top dollar for bottom-of-the-barrel product.
You can visit her on the Internet at http://www.komando.com or e-mail her at firstname.lastname@example.org. Her national talk radio program can be heard on Saturdays from 7 to 9 a.m. on 97.1 KLSX-FM.