Where there's smoke: Apple warranty stance raises troubling questions

I'm the last person who would ever come out in support of smoking. It's a noxious, nasty habit that according to the US Centers for Disease Control kills 443,000 Americans every year. The CDC says smoking is the root cause of over 30% of all cancer-related deaths, 80% of all lung cancer-related deaths, and 80% of deaths due to chronic obstructive pulmonary disease.

These are big, ugly numbers, for sure. But I'll be selfish and focus only on one: My father was a secret smoker for years -- a secret that ultimately landed him in hospital with a compromised heart, and a secret that ultimately killed him.

So far be it for me to defend smokers. And I won't. But after Apple's recent moves to tighten its warranty coverage and deny repair claims on machines that had been exposed to smoke, I find myself wondering whether the company has gone too far, and whether fair-minded consumers are being taken for a ride when they either buy an Apple-branded product or purchase an extended warranty.

The Non-Warranteed Warranty

First, the basics: The Consumerist reported last week on a couple of cases where Applecare Warranty claims were denied by Apple after technicians discovered the machines had been exposed to cigarette smoke. The company said it would not require its technicians to work on anything that could harm their health. And since nicotine is on the Occupational Safety and Health Administration's list of hazardous substances, Apple made it official by letting its techs refuse to provide service and, in the process, essentially void the warranties of smokers.

Carmi Levy: Wide Angle Zoom (200 px)But here's the challenge: Not everyone whose machine is damaged by smoke is necessarily a smoker. While we can easily wag our fingers at folks who carelessly dangle a burning butt mere inches from their keyboard -- and laugh at them when the ragged remains muck up their keyboards and clog their fan intakes -- what about those poor saps who've never smoked in their lives, but happen to live or work in an area where their machines may suck up whatever's already in the air?

We don't often control where we both take and use our mobile devices. Some of us are occasionally forced to take our laptops into smoke-choked public places (they may be disappearing, but they still exist) or have the dumb luck to work in offices where the chain-smoking bosses still don't care about workplace health standards. Any machine that spends a few hours, days, or weeks in places like these will likely emerge with its insides coated with nicotine. Whether it's first-hand or second-hand smoke will hardly matter.

But wait, there's more

All of this means that Apple's newly tightened rules could potentially void coverage for perfectly well-meaning non-smokers who had the misfortune of using their machines in less-than-optimal environments. More ominously, Apple's move opens the door for other vendors to not only follow its lead, but to also pick and choose the kind of environmental conditions they'd like to void next. And even if they bother to update their fine print after you bring your spanking new piece of hardware home, chances are the first you'll hear of it is when something breaks and you bring it in for service, only to be told you're rather out of luck.

Apple has already managed to tick off some iPhone users by refusing to replace units whose moisture sensors had gone off. Immersion is another no-no for electronic devices, and Apple's been just as diligent ensuring it isn't on the hook for sweaty exercisers, rain-soaked commuters or folks who like to keep the humidifier on high. When I first wrote about this for Betanews last August, I got panicked phone calls from friends suddenly afraid to bring their iPhones into the kitchen while cooking or into the car on a damp, foggy morning. One father of a toddler freaked when the little munchkin appeared in his home office with a water pistol. It was empty, but he's now so worried about Apple's anti-moisture stance that the iPhone usually stays at home.

Say goodbye to mobility

Now that the smokey Pandora's Box has been opened, it's only a matter of time before we can't take our devices outside (UV, windborne pollen, excessive carbon dioxide due to global warming) or inside (fireplace emissions, paint fumes, foot odor) and are instead relegated to sticking them in protective bubbles that allow absolutely no interaction with the environment around them.

Yes, I'm being ridiculous. But so is Apple. Can the company's technicians truly tell the difference between smoke deposits left by a smoker, those obtained from second-hand smoke and those received during a business trip to smog-choked Shanghai, China? If Apple is so intent on shielding its techs from hazards, can it reasonably assure us that every piece of hardware it has ever made is completely devoid of noxious substances that can cause permanent damage to someone unlucky enough to pry open the case? In fairness to Apple, its latest generation of hardware leads the industry in eco-friendliness, but still, it's more than a little arbitrary to single out smoke deposits and nothing else.

Legally inclined folks refer to it as "reasonable use," which means, simply, that they'll cover claims arising from regular usage scenarios, and will deny those resulting from anomalous use. So accidentally bumping your machine against the door jamb as you rush out of the house is considered reasonable use. Pile-driving it into that same door jamb to test its structural integrity or otherwise entertain the small-minded? Not so much.

I get that vendors have to establish basic ground rules to prevent those small-minded folks from taking advantage of the system, and driving higher costs for the rest of us. I also get that the corporate ethics of a company led by a man who's been to the medical equivalent of hell and back twice, may be somewhat predisposed toward encouraging healthier, greener life choices. If that's what it takes to reduce the CDC's figures and save families needless heartache, then so be it. Vendors still shouldn't use it as an easy way to wiggle out of warranty obligations.

Carmi Levy is a Canadian-based independent technology analyst and journalist still trying to live down his past life leading help desks and managing projects for large financial services organizations. He comments extensively in a wide range of media, and works closely with clients to help them leverage technology and social media tools and processes to drive their business.

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