Betamax player

Distributed accountability

It used to be simple.

The VHS player you just bought from Dixons doesn’t work, so you take it back to the shop and say “Oi, this doesn’t work”. They plug it into a TV, slot in a tape and either say “Oh, sorry” and give you a new one, or “Nope, it’s fine. Must be your TV or your tape”.

There were only so many parties that could be accountable for a product not working, and it was pretty easy to place the blame and get it sorted. It’s not so simple any more.

This year I bought a Samsung Smart TV, which I absolutely love … when it works.

On fairly regular occasions I open – say, Netflix – and the TV gives me a ‘user-friendly’ message along the lines of “You’re not connected to the Internet” or Netflix says something nondescript like “We’re having trouble playing that – try again later”.

My flatmate says with utter confidence “It’s Virgin Media”. I say “But my laptop and phone are both online” and so on… You can imagine the futile conversation, because neither of us know what’s actually wrong with it and have no way of finding out. The thing’s a black box.

So who are you going to complain to?

The problem is that between my eyeballs and the movie I want to watch there are too may potential points of failure:

  • The Netflix application;
  • The Samsung TV running SmartHub software;
  • A TP-Link powerline adapter connecting the TV to my router;
  • The Virgin Media router/cable modem;
  • The Virgin Media broadband service;
  • The Samsung servers (dependency of all apps);
  • The Netflix servers.

That’s a lot of people to phone up and complain to when you have no idea which bit is broken. So try phoning Netflix and see how far you get. After switching your TV on and off and rebooting your router, or whatever other advice¬†they give, they’ll probably tell you to phone your ISP. So you phone Virgin and do the reboot dance again, except your laptop is online and there’s no problem and they tell you to phone Netflix .. or Samsung.

The last thing you’re going to do is cart your 40″ TV back to the shop and complain, because by the time you get there it’ll have “fixed itself” as all inexplicable faults seem to do in the age of magic.

Basically you’re stuck.

It seems like service providers and manufacturers are in a position of impunity where they can simply blame each other when their product intermittently fails. Customer service channels will never be sufficiently technical to debug your complex home network and entertainment setup and identify the point of failure, especially when it’s not their component at fault. All you’ll ever do is switch things on and off until they work and never be any the wiser as to what was wrong or how you fixed it.

Welcome to the future of home entertainment.

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