How Microsoft stole Christmas

The following is, regrettably, a true story.

I was quite late to the next-gen party, owning a Wii long before I finally took the plunge and bought an Xbox 360. One thing that had put me off buying one earlier was the reported built-in obsolescence, which comes with most things these days like, as Andy Zaltsman once put it “Japanese televisions, milk and women”. The main problem was that Microsoft’s console appeared to be reaching for its suicide button a bit too early a bit too often, a phenomenon now fondly immortalized as “the Red Ring of Death”. But nevertheless I bought one and, sure enough, a mere five months later I can count myself as one of its victims.

Sods Law was adhered to with frightening punctiliousness. I was eagerly awaiting the delivery of a game, somehow delayed by Play-Asia, and it was when it finally arrived I was greeted by that hateful red wink. Moreover that very weekend the wife had planned a short trip with her girlfriends, offering the delights of an old-fashioned marathon gaming session with bad food and little sleep. Even further, it was the beginning of December, with Christmas and the New Year break on the horizon.

Having heard the troubles of other ex-pats and Xbox victims, Japanese support can be strict, demanding all kinds of information and trying to walk you through endless reams of unhelpful helpdesk motions. “Have you tried switching it off and back on again?” That kind of thing. So on the very Thursday night my Xbox committed suicide I emailed support, gave them my details, address and telephone number, the serial number of the machine and the date on which I had bought it. I assured them I had followed their on-line instructions to no avail and asked them if they could see to the problem at their earliest convenience.

What follows is an example of streamlined, customer-focused service of the kind Japan is rightfully famous for.

The very next morning, the Friday, I was contacted by telephone by a friendly, Japanese speaking support person who helpfully told me it was “probably a hardware problem”. In England this would have been a cue to launch into sarcasm on my part, but I played it safe. Together we set a date for the pick-up, the very next day, the Saturday, early in the afternoon. Indeed, at the appointed time a keen, young courier arrived to whom I handed my console. He folded out a sheet of bubble-wrap and carefully wrapped it up, gave me a receipt and rushed off again. I started the two week wait I was told to expect. However, the very next weekend, on Sunday, the doorbell rang and I was greeted by a chirpy delivery boy who handed me a big box, asked for my stamp and told me it was my Xbox, which actually took me by surprise. I unwrapped it, saw the invoice of “0 yen” for a new motherboard and a letter of apology with a free month’s subscription card for Xbox Live attached.

At this point in the narrative I must congratulate Microsoft support for its timely and excellent service. I set up the console, started it up without problems, reset my network connection and started playing my game. Life has a funny way of sorting itself out.

Approximately an hour later I am struck by the bold use of graphical effects the game’s developers are throwing at me. It appears they have put some kind of filter over the image, a little like reducing the number of colours on-screen dramatically. After a short while I consider the possibility this was not intended. I bring up the dashboard and see that that too is displayed in approximately 100 colours, showing a lot of flickering and banding. I quit the game to be certain but the problem persists. I decide to restart the Xbox. At this point the audio chirps out its overly dramatic orchestral hit, the familiar start-up sound, but no image appears on screen. The green eye on the front doesn’t turn red which means the console is on.

I piddle about with the cable. I switch the resolution switch on the plug a few times. I change the input on the television to several different ones and, of course, restart the console a number of times, but no image greets me. Christmas is now right around the corner and the New Year break is so close I can taste it, which, together with the fact this machine had just been “fixed” and one could imagine the stream of expletives that I spew forth. I am not a patient man, you see, and sometimes enough is enough. Immediately I compose a new e-mail and send it off to Microsoft support, detailing the problem, adding my suggestion something was dislodged when they replaced the motherboard, listing, again, my details, serial numbers and previous customer support ticket number. But this time I am upset so I add the request for a new console to replace this botched Devilchild, or, failing that, a complete refund.

Now Japanmanship commenters, fellow ex-pats and myself have often observed the fact that Japanese service is only excellent as long as the customer’s requests stay within predetermined parameters and the support company’s rulebook. Anything extra beyond and above the usual is a little like watching an irresistible force meet an unmovable object. Ask for a pizza without the cheese, please, and you might as well ask the clerk the square root of a negative imaginary number, or whether it is acceptable for you to feast on the flesh of his firstborn. These kinds of things simply don’t and cannot happen.

What follows is an exercise in Japanese-foreign miscommunication and culture clash.

Whether support was busy or my email too scary, I hear nothing in the 24 hours I was promised an answer. The next day I try their toll-free number, which doesn’t work on my mobile phone, so I try their fall-back number, which appears to be engaged all day. The day after that I try again, steal a company phone and call their toll-free number, which puts me through, eventually, to a real person. I tell them I have had no reply to my email of three days ago. The man checks and tells me they sent me an email two days ago. Seeing as I regularly check my email and spam folder just in case this is obviously not true so I tell him I, somehow, hadn’t received it. I give him my customer ticket number and he tells me he’d call back.

The time is approaching 6 in the evening, close to their closing time and four hours after my initial contact, so I phone again. Again I am told they’ll call back, which I begrudgingly accept. This time, a mere fifteen minutes later I am actually contacted by a man who speaks very little, and I mean very little, English. We speak in Japanese, but my patience has already run out.

“We have sent your…” he begins, and I cut him off.
“I know, I have it. Have you seen the email? I got it back and within an hour…”
“Have you tried the cable’s switch at the back of…”
“Yes, I’ve tried that several times, as well as disconnecting the power supply, trying several different inputs and restarting numerous times.”
“It may be a hardware problem.”
No shit, Sherlock. “Indeed.”
“I’m just reading your mail now. Um, you want a…refund?”
“Well, I say, I want a new console or failing that a complete refund. You know, to buy a Playstation 3 or something.”
This rehearsed barb strikes me immediately as futile. What is some underpaid desk clerk going to give a toss about losing a customer for Microsoft? Probably nothing. However, he strenuously tells me this is an absolute impossibility. “0%,” he says, “That’s how much you can get back. Zero.” Gee, thanks.
“So a new console then,” I reply.
“No, no, we fix your machine twice. No new console. If same problem, then new console, but different problem.”
I tell him the problem came about obviously due to their repairs. I tell him several times this simply just isn’t good enough. For 40,000 Yen I expect a piece of kit that works, at least for longer than five months. A new console would seem the only way to go.
“Not just you,” he states, “everyone. Other customers, all. First two repairs, No new console.”
Ah, the old Shared and Tolerated Grief gambit, a classic in Japanese society. Whenever a difficult person needs to be shot down, simply pointing to the fact this is what others have to contend with too is enough to shut most people up. Society is run on the caveat that problems are silently endured en masse. Also, the “two repairs” clause sounds a little too self-serving.
“But I am not other customers,” is the old come-back to this. I am unique, damn you, hear me roar, I am not a number, I am foreign!
This phases him somewhat, but he is not about to give in.
We haggle a little more as I keep restating how unacceptable this whole situation is. On the issue of the refund I wonder silently if there is such a thing as a small claims court in Japan, but quickly discard the idea thanks to the realization I am a foreign schlemmel with not a single human right in Japan.
He asks me to wait a little, to please hang on.
This is the moment of Truth. He is either asking his balding, tyrant boss what to do about this troublesome foreigner who won’t take “no” for an answer or asking his colleagues for help on the matter. A few minutes later he returns.
“Can I email you?”
“Um, why?” I ask.
“Something language, difficulty, English,” he goes on.
I make an extra effort to speak as close to perfect Japanese as I can muster. “Don’t you understand my predicament then?”
“Yes, but…”
“My console broke. You fixed it. Your repairs broke something else. I want a new console or, failing that, a complete refund.”
I know he just wants me off the line and conduct his unhelpfulness via email, which is a whole lot less stressful and much easier to ignore. But I won’t let him. “How now?” I proffer. What do we do now?
The conversation cycles round a few more times, covering the same old ground. I know I am not winning, as after the short break in which he spoke to his boss or colleagues, the answer was still “no”. After that there really is no hope and I was merely being a dick to him because I was upset and not willing to let him off the hook that easily. I wanted him to sweat and I really believe he did.

“Okay then, bloody pick it up the day after tomorrow around noon.”
He is suddenly silenced by confusion.
“You will email tomorrow?”
“No, pick the damn thing up the day after tomorrow. Saturday.”
“We call Saturday?”
“Listen, mush. You come to my house. You pick up the console. You fix the damn thing. You send it back.”
Second repair?!?” he asks, delighted and with an audible sense of utter relief. This pretty much confirmed my tyrant boss theory. He was obviously told not to give in or else, and was stuck in between a rock and another, foreign rock. I feel a little sorry for him, but that doesn’t stop me being annoyed.
“Well, I don’t have a fu…a choice, do I?”
Happily, relieved he confirms the new pick up date and time.
We break the connection, he with a thankful but obviously rehearsed apology, I with a grunt of dissatisfaction.

So now my console is back at the shop. While I await its return the New Year holiday is slowly ticking to an inevitable close. God only knows what happens if they muck it up again this time. I have the man’s name, so he had better have holiday plans come early January.

If there are still any undecided consumers out there, my advice is, in all honesty, not to buy an Xbox 360. The hardware is deeply flawed in design and the chances you are greeted by the Red Ring of Death are very real. All the support and warranty extensions and free months to Xbox Live can’t make up for the fact it’s a substandard product. There are a lot of great games on it, but that is pretty academic if the machine doesn’t work. Also, never try to get something extra out of Japanese service, no matter how entitled you are to it. Be it extra mayonnaise, a refund for a broken item, an exchange for the same product but in a different colour, a reduction in price for a display model, just don’t even try. It is impossible

Of course this all doesn't help Microsoft's epic struggle in Japan. The only market for the Xbox 360 here is the hardcore, and thus informed gamer, and the Red Ring saga is well known to potential customers. Indeed, of all my colleagues who have one only one has escaped this ignominious hardware failure but only by virtue of having bought his a mere two months ago. These kinds of wide-spread faults in Japan are usually met with tearful, public apologies and a total recall to salvage the respectability and believability of the company. Microsoft, as is their right, decided to leave things as they are and just focus on resolving the issues as they come up, basically letting people experience the fault and then hoping a free month's subscription to Xbox Live would smooth things over. But I don't think Japan works that way. Why would anyone willingly lay down a bundle of cash for a piece of kit that has a very high failure rate and presents the very real probability that it will fail on you?

Or, as my wife succinctly put it, "Why the Hell did you buy a Microsoft product anyway? It's your own fault, you fucking idiot." To which my only reply is and could ever be a meek "Yes, dear. Sorry, dear."


  1. Did we marry the same woman?

  2. Do you know about the towel trick?
    Apparently the solderings are quite bad and lose contact because of the heat of the GPU/CPU. Wrapping a towel around the console seems to fix this.
    I hope they'll fix it right this time.

  3. My first console lasted almost exactly a year. It died two weeks before the launch of Halo 3. Luckily, I'm not a huge Halo fan, but it's something I would have liked to have been a part of. A new system got back to me 4 weeks later, at least in time for The Orange Box.

    I think it's annoying, but I believe I can live with it dying once a year, maybe twice if it's in a quiet period. Gives me an excuse to get on with Okami and FFXII or whatever I guess. Still I now always play with the window open, the console turned with its back facing it, and only for no more than an hour at a time. I hope it helps...

  4. you can write a post on "how microsoft stole the ideas of everybody"...

  5. I've been running an Xbox Live clan for roughly three years and when you're trying to manage a group of gamers it becomes frighteningly obvious how often the 360 breaks down. My 360 has been sent into repair three times, and I count myself very lucky that it's fixed and sent back to me within a week or two, as I have friends who waited months to receive theirs.

    Have you read about the new Falcon chips that are packed inside the new 360s? Apparently they reduce the chance of breakdowns significantly, though I haven't seen anyone confirm this yet. Breakdowns are all too common for this console, I have a minimum of two clan members who are MIA because of the red ring of death at all times.

  6. I know of the towel trick, but the way I see it it's up to Microsoft to provide me with working hardware, that is sort of the traditional deal with providing something for money. Especially so early on in the warranty.

    The XBox problems ar well-known and so widespread I'm surprised people let them get away with it. It's unacceptable, surely?

  7. Well, it worked for almost all Microsoft software as well, why should it suddenly change?

    Oh, happy new year by the way.

  8. Sometimes a corporation must look at a problem squarely, overcome its own ego, admit that a problem exists, and do the right thing for its customers. Microsoft has never been willing to overcome its own arrogance in this situation, and despite an extraordinarily high hardware failure rate, it simply refuses to take responsibility and make things right for its customers. They should have done a product recall last year, and replaced the defective model with a version that works. Their refusal to do so, in my view, is more about corporate arrogance than money.

    Excuse my rant, but my issues with Microsoft go back many years. I'm now a Linux user and can proudly claim to have two computers: one a Mac and the other a Linux PC. Neither has a single Microsoft product installed on it. My own little meaningless protest, I suppose, but it does my soul good! ;-)

    Sorry about your situation, JC. Perhaps sharing it as you have will do some good. I'm not holding my breath, but we can always hope, can't we?

    Happy New Year and keep up all the excellent work on Japanmanship!

  9. Since we're making recommendations based on anecdotal evidence, I'll suggest that one go out and buy the Xbox 360, since the unit I personally purchased has been 100% reliable thus far. I have had my 360 since immediately before Dead Rising came out in the States (July 2006,) it's moved with me from San Francisco to Texas and back, and it hasn't had a single problem, much less a red ring of death. So, all things being equal, I believe our experiences cancel one another out. Readers: get a 360, or don't, maybe.

  10. Steve, you must be the Golden Child or in some other way blessed or something. But to be honest, for every "mine never crashed" story I have heard tens of tales of woe. Your recommendation stands though. Get one. Or not. Best not. But maybe. But really.

  11. Steve, I hear you about relying too much on anecdotal evidence. Generally I think that makes sense, but in this case, all I know is I've got a whole lot of anecdotes!

    A rough estimate based on friends who have Xbox 360s suggests about a 50% failure rate. I realize this kind of unscientific analysis doesn't prove anything, but from what I've seen there are way more hardware problems than there should be, and that impression appears to be widespread, at least where I live.

    As JC says, maybe you're leading a charmed life. I recommend playing the lottery at your earliest opportunity. ;-)

    I always enjoy reading your blog, by the way. Thanks for all your good work there.

  12. Here's an anecdote for you: I'm on my *fifth* 360 since launch, having gone through a launch system which locked up every single time I tried multiplayer on PGR3, two RRoDs (both within a week of dash updates), and a DOA from the service center.

    On top of that, I've purchased over $200 worth of Xbox Live Marketplace content that my family and I have been locked out of after each replacement thanks to their wonderful DRM. I've had to involve both the Better Business Bureau and my state's Attorney General's office to get them to resolve it; otherwise, they refuse to do anything about a problem caused by their lousy hardware and the resulting DRM debacle.

  13. I've had a 360 since it first came out, and have sent it in twice now for repairs. The first time they sent me a totally new console instead of fixing it, and I believe I got one of the "2nd generation" versions which were less likely to breakdown. The second time I only had to send in my power plug because it didn't get replaced the first time around. This was about 1.5 years ago. I haven't had any problems since.

    Both times I sent my unit in, I got it back within 3 days. So while I think breaking down in general is really lame, and having to fix it at all is a bit of a pain, I feel my experience dealing with their support has been great. And I'm actually surprised. I wouldn't have expected to get free repairs and free shipping so quickly normally.

    So, aside from my 2 rather quick fix experiences, I've been really enjoying my experience with the 360, especially with all the XBoxLive content, including all the movies and TV shows available now. In fact, my enjoyment with the system, XBoxLive and the games has far outweighed my initial pain of fixing it. Of course, if I was still constantly having issues, that would completely reversed.

    Anyways, I think my point is, it seems the system is getting somewhat more reliable with time and new hardware, and I would personally recommend the system to someone considering it, as long as they understanding the potential for a few broken system repairs.

  14. I just discovered your blog and I'm really enjoying it. You're a great writer.

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