The 10 most annoying tactics of technology companies

The everyday practices of hardware, software, and Web firms can drive their customers bonkers. Here's how to fight back.

May we vent for a minute? Much as we love technology, sometimes we get fed up with the companies that provide it. Maybe it's the notice saying that important features of our perfectly good money-management software no longer work just because it's a couple of years old. Maybe it's the new PC we just bought, so loaded with unwanted junkware that it takes minutes to boot and runs like molasses. Or maybe it's the way we're forced to switch to a certain behind-the-times carrier if we want to buy a certain way-cool phone. (Oh, and that fairly new operating system we don't like, don't want, and can't escape? Don't even go there.)

Yeah, we're fed up, all right. And we're not the only ones: We surveyed readers at PCWorld.com and found that you've had your fill of such annoying policies and practices as well. (Be sure to see more on the results of our informal poll.) Hoping for a little retribution--or at least some explanations--we went knocking on the doors of Apple, Intuit, Sony, Symantec, and other perpetrators of bad behavior. We didn't always receive good answers (or sometimes any answer--Apple didn't bother to return our calls), but we did put these companies on notice: Annoyed customers frequently turn into ex-customers.

Who got served? Here's our list of some of the most annoying practices (and practitioners), along with suggestions for working around the hassles or avoiding them altogether.

Software sunset policies

Major offenders: Intuit, Microsoft

The problem: For Quicken 2005 users, April 30 must have been an incredibly annoying day. That's when Intuit pulled the plug on that version of its money manager, in accordance with the company's discontinuation policy (also known as sunsetting). Consequently, owners of that product can no longer use Intuit's online bill-pay services, download financial data from their banks, access Quicken.com investing features, get live technical support--shall we go on? Sure, the software still functions, but with only a fraction of its former capabilities. Your sole recourse is to upgrade to a newer version with features you may not want, an interface you don't recognize, and other changes. On your dime.

What gives? Why can't you keep using the software you already know, love, and paid for? To hear Intuit tell it, out with the old and in with the new. "Retirement of online services and live support in older versions of Intuit desktop products allows Intuit to focus its resources on innovation and resources for current and new offerings," says company rep Jodi Reinman. Microsoft Money--Quicken's biggest competitor--sunsets even faster, after just two years, and a Microsoft spokesperson offered us a very similar explanation.

In plain English, it costs a company money to maintain and support older products--and of course, someone who is using one of those products isn't spending money on a new one. Sorry, but we can't sympathize. Just as Windows XP users want the option of keeping their OS instead of having to invest in Vista, finance-software users want more than two or three years' worth of functionality from their programs.

The fix: Unfortunately, you can't do much about sunset policies if you want to use the software. Web-based alternatives such as Mint.com, Mvelopes, and Quicken Online aren't nearly as full-featured, and all but Mint.com charge monthly fees, so you're not much better off financially than you would be by upgrading every few years. In the meantime, if you're a Quicken 2008 user, mark your calendar for April 30, 2011--the likely discontinuation date for that version.

Rebate runarounds

Major offenders: Buy.com, Office Depot

The problem: An oldie but goodie. You buy a sweet little home-office laser printer that costs all of $49--after a $50 rebate, that is. After filling out and mailing in the paperwork, you wait four to six weeks: nothing. You wait another two weeks: still nothing. Finally you realize that your $49 printer has cost $99 after all. Welcome to the rebate runaround.

Horror stories about Buy.com rebates involving Wintergreen Systems and the now-defunct Connect3D abound. Office Depot, meanwhile, had the most gripes on Rebate Report Card at press time. But even small, reputable firms can incur a customer's wrath when a rebate goes sour.

James Stewart, owner and operator of a videography company in Santa Rosa, California, is still trying to figure out exactly what Primera was looking for when it asked for a copy of his "receipt" in the instructions for a $150 rebate on a disc duplicator he had bought online from retailer J&R. Stewart sent a copy of an e-mail labeled "J&R Order Receipt" that included the billing address, the shipping address, the payment method (his credit card), and details about the price; some five and a half weeks later, he received snail mail from Primera saying he had not provided the required "invoice," but offering to review his claim if he could send it.

Perplexed, Stewart contacted J&R to ask for a copy of whatever Primera needed; J&R sent him an electronic document that he printed and mailed to Primera--but he heard nothing back. When we contacted Primera, the company said that while neither document met its requirements (put in place to avoid fraudulent claims by people who order products and then return them once they get the rebate), it had verified Stewart's purchase with J&R and the rebate was on its way--well within the eight-to-ten-week time frame required to process a properly documented claim. But Stewart (who says he learned that the rebate was coming only when we told him) is still angry. "I think that rebate deals are an enormous scam on the consumer and should be outlawed," he says.

Of course, instead of offering rebates, tech vendors such as Primera could simply lower their prices--but companies say there are solid business reasons for rebate programs.

The fix: Before you jump on a rebate deal, check the company's customer ratings at the Rebate Report Card site. When filing a rebate, make sure to follow the instructions to the letter (which means reading every inch of the fine print). Keep copies of everything you mail in and of every piece of paperwork involved. And send the rebate via registered mail so that you can prove the fulfillment company received it.

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