Monday, June 13, 2005

Recall notices

Here is a letter that I received from Microsoft recently:



Click for larger image

Think about how sad this is. We live in one of the most technologically advanced civilizations on earth. And the letter comes from what should be one of the most technologically advanced companies on earth. And yet...
  • The letter is addressed to Kris Bram rather than Marshall Brain. What does that mean? It could mean that Kris Bram has not received his notice at all (and his house will burn down next week when the power cord on his Xbox bursts into flame?), or that Kris is living in Spokane Washington and received a letter addressed to Norman Neebermyer.
  • I have signed up for Xbox live, so Microsoft knows the serial number for my Xbox already. There is no need for Microsoft to send me a letter.
  • The message had to be sent by snail mail. In our society today there is no other "universal" way to send something to me besides using a hand-delivered piece of paper. The letters and their delivery are probably costing tens of millions of dollars -- never mind the cost of manufacturing and mailing the power cords themselves.
  • Because we buy products anonymously, Microsoft can reach only a fraction of the Xbox owners affected by this problem. It is likely that more than half of Xbox owners never registered with Microsoft.
  • Given that this is the "Second Notice", it would appear that the letter has now been sent twice, although I don't recall receiving the first notice. The majority of the mail we receive every day is "junk mail", meaning that more than half of all mail received every day is thrown out without ever opening it. Even if the letter arrived, there is a high likelihood that it looked like "junk" and it got thrown away.
  • The problem the letter discusses is with the power cord -- an unbelievably simple technology that is a century old and consists of two wires in a plastic sheath. Of all the things to fail... it is not the hard drive spinning at 5,000 RPM or the DVD drive with all of its gears and motors or the microprocessor with its 100 million transistors. It's the power cord.
  • If I had moved since I registered my Xbox, Microsoft would have absolutely no way to contact me in the current system. Registration is a one-time event, with no mechanism to update the registration information.
  • If I happen to sell my Xbox at a garage sale, there is no way for Microsoft to discover the new owner unless the new owner happens to sign up for Xbox live.
In other words, Microsoft has a very simple problem: Microsoft wants to send a new power cord to a certain group of Xbox owners. However, Microsoft has no easy way to do that. Microsoft does not know who all the Xbox owners are or where they live, and has no easy way to get a message to these people even if it did.

There are several ways to imagine this system getting better:
  1. We create a single, nationwide database that contains the name and address of every citizen. When you move, you change that single record. Every magazine subscription, bill, recall notice, etc. automatically reroutes to your new address.

  2. All devices become intelligent. All devices communicate regularly on the Internet with their manufacturers. That way, if there is ever a recall notice, the device automatically knows that there is a problem and communicates the message to its owner.

    Right now it is hard for us to imagine something inert like a baby seat becoming network-enabled. But then when you think about it, why should something as important as a baby seat be inert? Why shouldn't it be smart enough to know that it has been installed correctly, and that the baby has been strapped correctly?

  3. Using the nationwide database, we create a new communication channel that is specifically used to transmit important pieces of information. One problem we have right now is that every communication channel we use is overwhelmed with junk. People's mailboxes overflow with junk mail, their email boxes are full of spam, and their phone lines are jammed by telemarketers. As described in this post, we need some sort of communication channel that is free from junk, is inexpensive like email and has guaranteed delivery and acknowledgement of receipt. Do we have a way to create a communication channel like that?
Or do we have a way to make existing communication channels reliable, to clean out the junk, and to make delivery guaranteed?

Google

8 Comments:

At 1:27 PM, Blogger sean said...

In response to #1, isn't this what the current administration is trying to do and privacy groups are trying like heck to stop?

Follow up: did a quick Google search and came up with these for your perusal:

Bill Summary and Status

Wired article on Real ID

 
At 9:52 PM, Blogger Dimitar Vesselinov said...

Information Awareness Office
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Information_Awareness_Office

 
At 1:07 PM, Blogger Jon said...

I received one of these letters as well even though my xBox does not fall in the date range specified.

What I want to know is, if my power cord catches fire and my house burns down, is MS liable? They sent me this letter notifying me of the recall, but at what point does their liability dissapear because I have yet to replace my power cord? Am I now liable because of caveat emptor?

 
At 12:29 PM, Blogger sean said...

I'm not a lawyer, but I'm fairly certain that you're correct in your assessment of the issue, jon. Once Microsoft notifed you of the issue, AND offered to rectify the problem, they removed their liability. At least in theory. Again, I'm not a lawyer, but I've heard similar stories before (power cables for Playstations come to mind, or how mounting a PS2 in the vertical stand broke the DVD-ROM in over 10% of the units) and the companies involved have always avoided liability through mass mailings and updates to their web sites.

 
At 12:01 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Oh, Marshall... you cannot be serious. I don't know what your religious leanings are, or where you stand on civil liberties, but what you propose is positively un-American. It's practically totalitarian. All in the name "correcting" a simple inconvenience? I don't want a national database, and I don't want a powerful government with access to it.

 
At 11:02 PM, Blogger Veritas said...

I do consulting with numerous charities, and I believe that a national database already exits, at least to some extent. National Change of Address, or NCOA, is used extensively by direct mail marketers in mass mailings after obtaining names from exchanges with other organizations or from rental list brokers. There is a cost involved, however, as a vendor is usually needed to match up all the names on YOUR list to the addresses in the NCOA database.
This matching process usually uses custom software, not readily available to the average joe. Also, this cost prohibits numerous updates. However, the Direct Marketing Association requires all members to use NCOA updates every 6 or 12 months. Don't know if there are rules for more commercial-oriented companies, but the info. is out there if Microsoft wanted to use it...

 
At 5:46 PM, Blogger Kat said...

This is why I subscribe to the recall notice feeds of the CPSC and the FDA.

 
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