When to put technology to pasture

Most vendors render their products essentially obsolete well before most customers are ready to throw out functioning tech

In a recent Gripe Line post on printers, "HP's loss becomes Lexmark's gain," Dave raised an interesting question. "I guess we all expect PCs to have a limited technical life. But we feel printers should last much longer. Or is that just me?"

I don't think it's just Dave. In fact, I don't think the question applies only to printers. All products have a life span, and determining when a product is still useful and when it should be shelved as a "legacy" system is, I suspect, more art than science. In the ideal world, if a product still works and I don't hanker for something shiny and new, I should be able to keep using it.

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But the world isn't ideal, and the creator of the product usually determines when it will stop supporting the item. Of course, the company always makes this decision at the peril of its relationship with its customers.

I have mediated many a disagreement over the years between vendor and customer when the two do not see eye to eye on the distinction between "still useful" and "out to pasture." In the latest example, Donna wrote to Gripe Line, asking me to weigh in on what she termed a "Symantec debacle." She provided a link to a forum discussion among users of a Symantec virus protection product and Symantec technical support. The technical support staff was recommending that customers experiencing problems with this product should upgrade. The customers were having none of it.

The product? Norton Antivirus 2001. The technical support person in that discussion says, "I don't mean to sound unsympathetic, but when a software package is nearly a decade old, one has to expect at some point it might stop working as operating systems, etc. change and improve." (Symantec explains its product lifecycle.)

A decade is a long time when it comes to virus protection software. In fact, 10 years is a long time when it comes to computers and printers, and it's certainly a long time in regard to cell phones. Heck, that's probably pasture time for refrigerators and mattresses too. I admit I'm with tech support on that one -- it is time to upgrade. If money is tight, there's always the free AVG Free Anti-Virus.

But my HP printer, which I use every day, is six years old. Should it be put out to pasture for failing to keep up with the times? It still works perfectly, and I don't want to replace it. While I may look forward to a spiffy new laptop, I just want my printer to print.

George wrote to say that he agrees with Dave: "We expect printers to last longer than PCs, especially commercial laser printers with multiple trays. Our printers are in the four-year-old age range and should last another three years." If he never upgrades his operating system, they probably will.

"Our office is a mix of Macs and PCs," says George. "All the PCs are still XP." For him, moving to Windows 7 would be an enormous hassle. "Our extensive library of code won't compile correctly on Windows 7."

But George's Macs are all upgraded to the latest version of operating system: "The only disadvantage we faced was with the Mac OS upgrades were with our HP printers. They still have driver problems -- simple, nagging problems like they don't support tray selection."

Proving Dave's point, it's the printers that are making George angry. "HP failed to support our printers," he reports, though the printers work fine on the older operating system and are only failing to work with Apple's newer OS. "Last month we bought a $6,000 color laser printer. We did not even consider HP. They are off our list."

You see? It's more art than science. A company can decide to move products to pasture because of changes that occurred in the industry, the inexorable march of time, or new product releases. Sometimes customers will accept that decision. We are, for example, accustomed to upgrading the computer for a new OS.

But sometimes we won't. Dave "went a little crazy" when his printer failed to upgrade with his operating system, and George ditched HP (but not Apple) when his printers refused to come along smoothly to the new OS.

As I examine these mismatched expectations in Dave, George, and others, I have to admit I agree. It may not seem exactly fair to the printer, but I don't expect my desktop computer to survive a Windows 7 upgrade. However, I expect the printer attached to it make it through unscathed -- even if it's already outlasted two PCs and I have a lot less money invested in it. 

Is this some aspect of human nature that bears further study? Or is it simply that the constant need to tend, upgrade, and pour money into technology that was already working pretty well making us all "a little crazy?"

Got gripes? Send them to christina_tynan-wood@infoworld.com.

This story, "When to put technology to pasture," was originally published at InfoWorld.com. Read more of Christina Tynan-Wood's Gripe Line blog at InfoWorld.com.

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