It's Pay Now or Pay Later With Consumer Electronics

Black Friday indeed. When I opened my e-mail just before Thanksgiving to see an ad for a $349 Dell laptop, I had two conflicting, passionate impulses: "Damn, I've got to get me one of those," and "That's disgusting."

I wanted one because I'm an American, and I like stuff.

But I'm disgusted because I know nothing's really free. It's either pay now, up front in honest dollars, or pay later in hidden charges, shoddy products, lousy tech support, a poisoned environment, lost U.S. jobs and starving workers.

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First of all, we're assuming that low prices mean what they say. But by being obsessed with low prices, we're asking to be lied to.

As Dan Costa said in his column a few issues ago, "cheap" PC prices just mean a lot of hidden added fees for software, shipping, and such.

PCs aren't even the worst tech products when it comes to sucking you in with fake prices. Have you checked your wireless bill lately?

Even if the prices are real, there's no guarantee that high prices mean high quality, but incredibly low prices almost always mean low quality.

While low prices have enabled us to fill our homes with more stuff, we pay in the loss of things like customer service, reliability, durability and flexibility. The cheap electronics that we buy on impulse break constantly, forcing us to buy more cheap electronics.

In the long term, we'll probably have spent just as much as if we'd bought high-quality stuff in the first place, except we'll have paid "later," not "now."

And the relentless cost-cutting brought on by a culture where low prices are the ultimate goal has led to the complete demise of tech support, the most labor-intensive part of the tech process and one that's invisible in advertisements and on shelves.

I'm reminded of the famously mass-forwarded e-mail from the head of Spirit Airlines, who dismissed customer service as useless because customers "will be back when we save [them] a penny."

He's right, of course. It's simple economics that companies will sell the worst products that people are willing to pay for.

I was recently chatting with a guy from AT&T who confidently told me that Americans will remain stuck in two-year phone contracts, cheerfully sucking up whatever restrictions wireless carriers want to lock them down with, because that's how they get the free phones.

He's right: Walk up to 10 people on the street and offer them a free phone in exchange for a whole bunch of restrictions they don't understand, and you'll get nine customers.

This is one reason why Verizon thought it could open up its network to non-Verizon-branded devices. Unlocked, unsubsidized, expensive phones will never gain mass acceptance as long as Americans buy mostly on price. Don't blame the drug dealer because you like the drug.

There are far greater costs, too; they're just invisible to us. It's impossible to produce ultra-low-priced electronics without using slave labor and poisoning somebody's water supply.

The water supplies in question are Chinese, but the slave labor issue echoes right here in the U.S.: If we buy electronics that can be built at only a dollar a day, we create a lot of jobs that pay a dollar a day.

Needless to say, few if any of those jobs will be in the U.S., and outside the U.S., few of these jobs would create lives that you or I would want to be living.

Price Competition Is Good

Price competition is good; it's price competition above all things that's the problem.

A big part of the issue could be solved by retailers and reviewers getting together to share clearer ideas about the social and environmental cost of products. We're starting "green testing" at PC Magazine, and we do our annual Service & Reliability survey.

It would be great to see that sort of information integrated more tightly into reviews and marketing, along with data on the social cost of a gadget: not only whether it is green to use but whether it was produced by a cadre of mercury-poisoned drudges working for six sunflower seeds an hour.

Similarly, when shopping for anything electronic, pin our S&R survey to your wall and mull it over while you're surveying prices. There's a big "out of sight, out of mind" factor when it comes to the long-term costs of things. We need to drag it into sight.

Yes, that means buying less stuff. But here's the wonder of the PC world: Flexibility often comes in software, not hardware. You don't need to buy a new PC or handheld every year for new software (often free and open source) to add new capabilities.

A marketplace more focused on quality than price may encourage creative software development as people seek more, different ways to use the resources of existing machines.

And software development is pretty environmentally friendly compared with hardware development. If you're buying bits rather than boxes -- well, that might just turn Black Friday green.

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