iLounge updates re-review policy, explains “revving”

As part of its ongoing efforts to provide clarity and transparency in its editorial policies, iLounge today announces an important update to its policy on reviews of iPod accessories, along with an explanation for readers as to the reasons for the update.

The Policy

Prior to September 6, 2005, iLounge permitted product “re-reviews,” addendums to (rather than replacements of) existing reviews that explained differences between “version 1” and “version 2” of an updated product. In order to keep readers properly informed that more than one version of a product was available, and that significant differences between versions could exist, the original rating and review text were preserved alongside the updated text and, where applicable, rating.

Because of abuse of this policy, as further described below, and effective September 6, 2005, iLounge will no longer re-review iPod accessories except in its sole discretion, and unless the following criteria are met: (1) the new product’s (a) name or (b) packaging and web site must conspicuously identify that product as a second or newly updated version of an earlier product; and (2) the company must provide a full description of the update for possible publication. These requirements are designed to give us, our readers, and resellers, an easy way to distinguish between old and new versions.

Having spoken with a number of iPod accessory manufacturers about this issue, iLounge’s editors fully understand that companies are facing tremendous pressure to get new accessories to stores before actual or perceived deadlines, and that this “rush to ship” is at least partially to blame. However, we believe that proper testing of finished units (with all supported iPod models) and attention to details in design will dramatically improve both consumer and reviewer experiences with products, eventually reducing or eliminating the need to ship “second versions” altogether.

Why Update the Policy: Several Specific Examples

In recent months, re-review requests have gotten entirely out of hand. We have previously made clear to manufacturers that we review only final accessories, and are not interested in reviewing prototypes or pre-production samples. Regardless, a number of manufacturers have shipped us “final, reviewable” accessories with major problems, only later to ask us to quickly look at “another version” that supposedly fixes those problems. Just a few examples from the last month alone include replacement internal batteries that can impair proper operation of the hard disks and/or controls of first- and second-edition iPods, iPod cases that used headphone ports that were much too small or misaligned, and a car charger that randomly interrupts iPod playback. There are unfortunately many other examples.

Virtually every iPod accessory maker will have a problematic product at some point, but companies differ in how they handle the problems. Sometimes, we are told after the fact that the problems will only affect the first unlucky 500 or 1,000 purchasers of products. Other times, companies say that they have recalled affected inventory, and some actually do, but with others, we still see units with problems sitting on store shelves months later. Some post web site advisories to let consumers know that updated versions are available. Others release fixed versions without any notice or explanation to customers.

Even if a company isn’t perfect, there are ways that it can do better by its customers than others. Belkin, as just one example, marked its updated Digital Camera Link packages with stickers that indicate a revision 2 unit is inside, and posted a web site customer advisory on the subject.

In our experience, the company has also been consistently forthright in disclosing product issues, which its representatives attribute to two related things: a desire to keep customers satisfied in the long-term, sustaining the company’s brand, and the economic advantages of resolving problems before tens of thousands of units wind up in consumers’ hands, rather than after.

Other than limiting our need to re-review products, our updated policy is intended to have two effects. First, we hope to make all iPod accessory makers aware that a short period of internal pre-release testing of “final production units” prior to shipment will reduce consumer, reviewer, and manufacturer surprise and disappointment. Second, prior to the release of any new iPod hardware, we hope to inspire discussion on accessory revision labeling and marketing so that iPod owners can feel comfortable knowing what they’re getting.

If you’ve heard enough, you can stop reading. Below, we provide some additional information on the re-release process –  often known as “revving” – for the benefit of readers who might want to learn more about the subject, and what we’ve been dealing with.

“Revving,” Explained

In the software world, a small update is commonly called a “point release,” with feature improvements or bug fixes small enough that version 2.0 isn’t warranted. Instead, the name “version 1 point 2” (1.2) or “1 point 5” (1.5) suffices. With the notable exception of Apple Computer’s Mac OS X (10.0 to 10.4) operating systems, consumers have come to expect most point releases for free, and companies often supply them as such.

But the hardware and accessories world is very different. Manufacturers don’t widely advertise a practice known as “revving” (short for revising or revisioning) whereby electronic components inside devices may be rearranged, enhanced, or even cut back for different reasons. The end result is a Power Mac motherboard revision B, a quietly released second-generation color iPod that emits less noise, or an accessory such as Griffin’s iTalk or Belkin’s TuneBase FM that mysteriously improves features as the months go on. A revved iPod case, while less common, may adjust the size and placement of holes, change certain materials (fabrics, adhesives), or improve the precision of stitching or other fit and finish elements.

Revving and Consumer Expectations

As with software, there is a tension between consumer interest in receiving “revved” products free of charge, and the desire of manufacturers to continue to improve their products without fear that customers will line up for free replacements. On one hand, some manufacturers claim that future revisions of their products are designed to appeal to and satisfy new consumers. If you buy early, they theorize, you are buying on the strength of the product as sold, and not what it may later become.

By contrast, consumers and their advocates have suggested that fixing bugs and improving features after a product’s release harms early supporters of the product, putting them at a disadvantage relative to those who wait for months for the dust to settle. Additionally, consumers often rightfully point to more serious hardware bugs and defects as breaches of product warranties, and suggest that they are due replacements when products fail to full meet their advertised claims. The appropriateness of these views varies from product to product, issue to issue, as some problems are truly trivial and insignificant, while others are more serious and potentially even illegal.

The Consequences of Revving

These opposing viewpoints have led to unfortunate consequences. Some manufacturers keep quiet about improvements, and some savvy consumers now hold off on buying products they might otherwise want until a second- or third-generation version is unveiled. A number of dedicated Mac fanatics, for example, now refuse to buy any Apple computer with a “revision A” logic board, no matter how tempting the designs may be.

In this scenario, everybody loses. Consumers refrain from consuming. Manufacturers and resellers lose sales. Reviewers hold back from expressing their full praise. For many reasons, this is the opposite of what everyone would prefer to see: one great product, properly tested and marketed, widely sold and widely enjoyed.

So Why Does Revving Happen?

In the iPod business, top manufacturers suggest that there is an intense pressure to release add-ons before their competitors, and before Apple changes or discontinues supported products. The former problem is more serious than the latter, but both are legitimate issues.

As the iPod economy has expanded, more companies from outside the iPod business have decided to try and take pieces of the still-expanding accessory market pie. Many have little or no experience with the iPod itself, or with certain segments (say, cases) of the iPod market, so they subcontract other experienced companies to supply them with design and/or manufacturing skills. Most recently, the subcontractors have been manufacturers in Southeast Asia that promise to churn out new cases and electronics at low costs and on minimal notice. Some are better than others, but there are many that cut important corners to hit their low price points and fast delivery times.

That’s why this strategy isn’t as wise as it initially seems, especially for smaller iPod accessory vendors. As we’ve seen in recent months, both with products we’ve reviewed and those we’ve passed on reviewing, “first to market” accessories are more than occasionally sloppy, and require significant additional tweaking and supervision in order to become worthwhile for most consumers. Sometimes iPod accessory vendors will sell the untweaked versions just to get them into stores and start making money, and revise them later, resulting in revisions 2 or 3. From what we have gathered, this is one of the more common reasons for iPod accessory revisions.

Another reason is legitimate manufacturing oversight.