Products That Change Without Permission

Illustration: John Cuneo
If you hopped into your car one morning and discovered that the pedal on the right had mysteriously become the brake and the one on the left had become the accelerator, you might not just be angry. You might be in the hospital.

It wasn't quite that hairy, but for the first time in my experience, a stand-alone consumer product recently used my Internet connection to change its own essential behavior without warning. One day the device worked one way--a way I'd come to know and understand, even when it didn't work entirely right. The next day, caramba! It had a whole new user interface that was significantly worse than the one I had grown accustomed to. The device? The DVR I lease from Comcast. I'm just glad the company doesn't make cars.

On computers, such behavior isn't unprecedented. AOL, for instance, has long presented users with new features and updates without asking. But I don't recall its ever automatically handing users an entirely new interface; and even Windows Automatic Update, which sometimes pushes fixes that can cause trouble, asks whether you really want Internet Explorer 7 before sticking you with its new look and feel.

I can't remember another product that woke up one morning with a hangover quite like the one this DVR had. Here in Seattle, Comcast's Motorola DVRs had run on software by Microsoft, with the usual Microsoft collection of bugs such as recorded shows that seemed to have lost their audio until you restarted the machine. But at least the user interface was relatively polished.

The replacement Guideworks software is unwieldy in so many ways that I can't count them all. A few minor examples: While you're searching for programs, it won't show live TV in a small-screen inset along with listings. There's no way to see your scheduled recordings in a single list. And some of the series that I had programmed into the old system didn't transfer properly to the new one.

Here's how utterly lame the box is: As delivered, it won't let you change channels by using the number keys to tune single- and double-digit channels directly, without pressing one or two zeros first--you know, the way you can on practically every other TV remote in the world. That default is so stupid that Comcast included a last-minute folder largely devoted to explaining how to fix it. All you have to do is go several menu levels deep, find an entry called 'Channel Entry Behavior', and change it to 'Auto-Tune'. Hey, Comcast, here's a better idea: Push software to the box that changes the default to the one people expect!

Like any local monopoly, Comcast holds its customers captive. An obvious reason for the change is that Guideworks is a joint venture of Comcast and Gemstar-TV Guide, so using it means that Comcast doesn't have to pay royalties to a third-party provider like Microsoft. Instead of renting Comcast's DVR, you could buy a CableCard-based box like the mostly estimable TiVo, but current CableCards can't handle on-demand programming, which may be cable's best feature.

With so much of the tech in our lives tied to services that companies can control remotely, expect more and more of these kinds of changes to the way things work. Take Google, which just shuttered its for-pay video service--rendering the videos that customers had bought from it unwatchable. When consumers squawked, Google offered them refunds. But they couldn't get back the time they'd wasted.

Call it a trend: Don't hold your breath for amends or even apologies from the next hardware or software provider that screws up a minor portion of your life with inferior "improvements" focused on the company's interests, not yours.

This story, "Products That Change Without Permission" was originally published by PCWorld.

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