The Family Penalty

Posted: June 3, 2007 in Uncategorized

You’ve all heard about the “marriage penalty” of income taxes, right? Well, I’m getting tired of paying a “family penalty” for technology devices.

I’ve spent the better part of the last two days researching a replacement PDA for my now-dead Visor Prism. I got the thing several years ago from a friend who was upgrading, and it’s been a pretty reliable machine. But it just went belly up about a month ago, and I decided it was time to replace it.

As some of you know from Sarah’s blog, my youngest son just came off an absolutely horrendous year at school, and we’ve been advised by multiple professionals to homeschool him from here on out. The schools have had a no-PDA rule for a while — I think it stems from the fact that so many phones these days come with cameras, text messaging and basic PIM functionality, and they certainly can’t allow cameras, phones or IM’ing during tests, so they just disallow everything. Fine. But for homeschooling, it’s not an issue, and I figured a PDA would be extremely helpful towards getting this kid organized — which he needs desperately.

In the schools, they’ve been “teaching” (and I use the term very loosely) the kids to use a paper organizer. For a tech guy like me, that’s just barbaric. Don’t get me wrong; I used to use a paper organizer myself. Then I got a PDA — an old TI Avigo, to be exact, which my older son currently uses. I didn’t so much transition to the electronic organizer as leap: I stopped using the paper organizer the very day I started using the Avigo. But the schools, in their quest to prevent wholesale cheating, don’t allow the electronic organizers. (I’m not blaming them for this policy, BTW, just suggesting that it’s interpreted a bit too broadly; I mean, if they allow calculators, how can a basic PDA be a problem?)

So I figured if I need to get two PDAs (for me and my youngest), maybe I should just get us all new PDAs. Robert hasn’t been able to synch his Avigo since I got him a new PC and discovered that the old DB9 serial ports have all but disappeared from mainstream computing. Same problem with Sarah’s Palm III since we replaced her laptop a couple years ago.

But the PDAs seem to have disappeared from the stores. I found actual models in Office Depot, but that’s it. CompUSA, Best Buy, Circuit City — no more PDAs in the showrooms. They’ve migrated into cell phones — smartphones, to be sure — which use carpal-tunnel-inducing Blackberry-inspired keypads. For a number of reasons, starting with the initial price and ongoing monthly cost of a cell phone plan, I don’t want to get four new smartphones just to get electronic PDAs.

So what do I do? Get older models or stripped-down models, basically. Uh huh. Everybody’s marketing copy talks about how affordable their products are, but I don’t consider $200-$300 for a reasonably-featured PDA “affordable” — the 2006 median income was $43200, so a $250 PDA is a shade under 1% of after-tax income, and more like 5-10% of that family’s disposable income. That’s not affordable. And it’s obscenely expensive when you need to buy four.

So, that means that if I want to get a technology product at a reasonable price, I have to wait for it to go on sale and/or offer a rebate. What I’ve seen over the course of several years is that retail stores often change their “normal” price so that their discounted “sale” price is actually close to the same as what the “normal” price was before the sale, so sales are only really sales maybe 3-4 times a year. Rebates, on the other hand, happen far more frequently, probably because they’re often offered by the manufacturers. Frequently enough, BTW, to make me wonder if the MSRP is maybe just a bit inflated to account for frequent rebates they’ll inevitably offer.

Unfortunately, rebates are usually limited to “one per person, per address, per household.” And that’s where I’m getting penalized unfairly. If I were single, I’d get that technology product at a reasonable price (i.e. after the rebate). But since I’m part of family, I need four, not one. If we were separate customers at different addresses — such as my father, my sister and I are, now that we all have separate households — we would all get that product at a reasonable price. But if I, as one customer, want to get multiples of that same product, I only get one at a reasonable price — I have to pay the full, inflated price for the others.

That‘s a family penalty.

And I’m tired of paying it. Do you hear me, technology manufacturers? Families are absolutely crucial to your business, so why do you penalize us? Do you seriously think 9-year-olds with cell phones will result in anything other than the next generation of adults considering the future equivalent of cell phones to be indispensable? Of course not! That’s why you market to the 9-year-olds.

We’re not stupid, here, so don’t give me the “Why not buy refurbished?” speech. Do you know how hard it is to find a reputable company that will sell you a refurbished product that actually includes all the accessories that are needed? All the companies I’ve found in the last two days have some serious customer service issues, especially relating to returns when they (often) ship the wrong or not working product. In the end, I might save 25%, but take on the significant risk that the vendor’s sales practices are underhanded. That’s not worth a 25% savings.

And why should the answer be to buy refurbished, anyway, just because I want to buy in bulk. I’m not good enough because I have a need for more? That’s just crazy. In most other businesses, I can get a price break by buying in bulk. Why not in technology?

The answer here is to stop treating families like second-class citizens, but I don’t see that happening. Here’s what I do see happening, though: I’m just not going to buy new PDAs. My oldest son already uses a calendar/todo program on his PC; I’ll just do the same, and so will the rest of my family. We’ll pitch the PDAs. Why not? The manufacturers are dumping them anyway.

Hey, PalmOne! Was that what you wanted?

  1. brownkitty says:

    Stray thought, and I don’t know whether it’d actually work. Have you looked in a good toy store for “toy” PDAs?

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