Does My Gear Know When Its Warranty Is Up?

Some gadgets fail just outside of warranty because that’s exactly how they are designed. Products that last forever do not a profitable multinational conglomerate make. “With cars and lightbulbs, companies figured out they could increase sales by decreasing product lifespans,” says Giles Slade, author of Made to Break: Technology and Obsolescence in America. But manufacturers also don’t want to get a bad rap for shilling crap, so they engineer their hardware to last just long enough for consumers to feel like they got their money’s worth. They guarantee the gear for that period of time—and not a second longer.

Warranty calculation is a serious science. For 30 years, business professors have developed equations to determine the optimal length of a guarantee. They factor in everything from profitability to thermodynamics. And you’d better believe that tech companies have formulas of their own, too, ones that figure into the conception and execution of every product that’s died in your loving arms. “Some companies can actually predict down to the hour when their products will break,” Slade says.

Behavioral economists have a different explanation: You’re trippin’. Death’s bony finger doesn’t tap every 366-day-old iPod and transform it into a lifeless corpse of silicon and solder. “It’s really connected to two things: regret and memory,” says Dan Ariely, author of Predictably Irrational. A gadget that dies a day out of warranty will piss you off a lot more than one that soldiers on until after you’ve lost the certificate. And years later, you’ll probably remember it more acutely, too.

The technical term is loss aversion: “We’re more attuned to losses than gains,” Ariely says. “Because of that, we have selective memories.” And if you believe that perception is reality, this proves that the Murphy’s Law of Gadgets is real—if only in your mind.

Wired: Does My Gear Know When Its Warranty Is Up?

1 Comment

  1. Bill Whitcomb

    May 15, 2009 at 10:54 pm

    I used to be a sysop for a IBM SYS/36 (Yeah, I know. I AM that old.) that was capable of dialing out to request repairs and order parts. I wondered if, after a while without anything breaking, it would just decide to order something like a replacement circuit board just for fun.

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