Less is not more: Tech industry’s glaring problem of value dilution

The tech industry has a problem that they don’t seem willing to solve. I call it value dilution for it has to do with companies diluting the quality of their product with no announcement or explanation of reason why. This was recently brought home to me once again when I bought a box of health bars I used to eat several years ago only to discover that the length of the individually wrapped bars inside the box were only about three-quarters the width of the box itself. And then when I opened the wrapper on one of the bars I discovered further that the length of the enclosed bar was only about three-quarters the length of its wrapper. In other words, these bars could have been packaged into a much smaller box only 3/4 x 3/4 = 9/16 or just over half the width of the one the vendor used for packaging them. But what makes this story an example of value dilution is that I can clearly remember that these bars used to be significantly larger when I used to buy them a few years ago. The price was still about the same, but the value I got for my money had been secretly decreased.

I’m sure many of you reading this can think of other examples of this phenomenon whereby a product or service you’re used to using has been diminished in quality or capability without any explanation from the vendor providing it. Or maybe they did issue an announcement somewhere in some little-known trade magazine or industry website to safeguard them against lawsuits from customers. Most likely however there was no announcement made that you would now be getting less for the same or even more money. In fact sometimes in a bizarre kind of way a vendor may even trumpet diluting their product as being something new or even better! An example of this I found recently was some repackaging of a liquid soap I’ve bought for many years: the bottle now said “New improved formula” but my experience using it suggests its detergent action is weaker than it was previously.

What does all this have to do with technology and the IT industry? It’s that more and more I’m observing a kind of value dilution happening with the products in this industry sector. This includes both products and services and also those targeting both consumers and businesses. Let me give you a few examples.

(Replaceable) batteries not included

First, there’s the example of mobile computing products. Many laptops and almost all tablets and smartphones no longer have batteries you can easily pop out and replace yourself if you have spare batteries of the right type. As a result such devices probably have less long-term value than the previous generation of similar mobile devices had. Now the vendors of devices probably argue that their products are getting better and better with each product cycle — more features, easier to use, less hassle, and so on. But are you really getting better value if the mobile computing devices you’re purchasing are disposable throwaways?

Next there’s the matter of storage. Laptops that have SSD instead of HDD storage may seem like better value since they perform better when it comes to speed and also reliability for those afflicted with “dropsy.” But the not much talked about fact is there can be significant differences in reliability and endurance capability between consumer-class SSDs and enterprise-class SSDs. This means that in some ways you may actually be getting less value when you pay the extra premium to upgrade the laptop you’re ordering from HDD to SSD storage, for while performance might be similar these different SSD classes can differ significantly with regard to their expected usable lifetime and their reliability when things like power failures happen.

Built not to last

I noticed a couple of years ago that the twist-ties my grocery store was providing for closing bags of vegetables seemed to have gotten thinner and more flimsy. I’ve also noticed something similar happening in recent years to the hinges on some makes and models of laptops from certain vendors (whose names I won’t mention here out of politeness — but you know who you are). Or maybe you don’t know who you are until your customers start to complain. My own theory about why this is happening has to do of course with profit. The vendor wants to increase their profit in order to please their shareholders, so they outsource manufacturing of the hinges to their laptop to a company in China. Then after producing the hinges for a while, the company making them decides to try and squeeze more profit from the laptop vendor by using cheaper raw materials for the hinges or making small changes to the manufacturing process. The result is hinges that look the same as before but tend to break more easily. I talked about this phenomenon recently in this TechGenix article where I mention two books by Paul Midler that highlight this underappreciated fact concerning Chinese manufacturing companies. After reading Midler’s books I now frequently encounter this phenomenon where before I had overlooked its importance. Of course, China isn’t the only country doing this kind of thing, it used to happen many years ago in America. That’s why they used to call it the Wild West, the place where you could buy snake oil at bargain prices, or so you thought. But in America at least and in much of Europe and similar parts of the world there are laws and regulations and restrictions and penalties in place that discourage (but don’t entirely eliminate) such kind of tweaking of products or services to try and maximize (or simply maintain) profit. China however is the new Wild West, and it’s great place to be if you’re selling Snake Oil or replacement screens for iPhones.

Value dilution in servers and datacenters, too

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While value dilution is pretty common nowadays in the consumer end of tech stuff, it can also be found in the server room and datacenter. For example, a few years ago I discovered that even servers from big-name vendors aren’t immune to manufacturing quality issues when I needed another server for my small business. So I bought a Dell PowerEdge tower model, and while it had a nice solid metal case that weight a ton, the power on/off button was made of plastic. One day after only a few months of service I needed to power the server off to add more RAM. So I pressed the power button to toggle the server off and the plastic power button broke and fell off the machine. As a result I had to use a pencil to push the power contact to turn the machine on or off from then on. Now why build a solid unit and use cheap materials for the power switch? I sometimes pine for the days of my youth when toggle switches required effort to flip and responded with a nice “click” when you flipped them.

Support? What’s that?

helpdesk

Then there are cloud services, which everyone is running and using nowadays to save money and make their business more “agile” even if their only product is paper clips. Now I do agree that it’s terrific how much quality and value you can get for low monthly cost. But what about support? The quality of the support personnel (in terms of how well they’re trained and can communicate) definitely seems to have been steadily declining for years as companies dilute their pool of experienced support staff and outsource their support operations to other countries. Most of us in the IT profession can well attest to this happening, and not just for cloud services but also for hardware and software vendors. Maybe not for all vendors, but the major ones especially — HP, Lenovo, even Apple and Microsoft — seem to have fewer people you can talk to who actually seem to know how to help customers. It’s how I once bought a stand-up fan from Walmart because it was a few dollars cheaper than a similar fan from Sears, but when I opened the box the power cord was ridiculously short. In the same way, today when you purchase a product from an IHV or ISV or hoster you may discover that the support they provide is not at all what you had anticipated based on how highly they “valued” their product on their website.

Have you seen any dilution of value happening with the IT products and services you consume or use to run your business. If you have, feel free to use the comments feature below to share your story for other readers to learn from.

And yes, I used to shop at Sears. For the terrific value, of course.

Featured image: Shutterstock / TechGenix Photo illustration

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