Wait a minute, these National Geographic CDs are obsolete!

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By Christopher Elliott

When Sean Corcoran’s CD collection becomes obsolete, he turns to National Geographic for help. You’ll never guess what they said.

Question

In 2000, I purchased a 30-disk CD-ROM set from the National Geographic Society with all the issues up to 1998. It was about $200, and it came in a beautiful, red velvet-lined wooden box. I’ve been lugging this box around for 14 years.

I went to use the set the other day with my son, and I learned it was no longer “supported” by the society. No way to view the magazines or search them. An inquiry to the Society resulted in this email:

“Unfortunately, as technology changed and improved, the Complete National Geographic Collection on CD-ROM became outdated and was discontinued in 2002. No updates are available for this version of the software, and we are no longer able to provide any technical support for the CD-ROM collection. We apologize for any inconvenience that this may cause. “

The email went on to say I can now buy a 7 CD-ROM set.

I would understand if the Society asked me to purchase the 2000s update or something, I’d understand that. But it appears to me that the Society made a decision not to fulfill its obligation in this instance. I am rather offended that the only solution offered is that I pay for the exact same thing twice.

I also wonder if the disks now being sold could soon be worthless because the Society again decides to abandon its obligations once it has a customer’s money in hand.

Thank you, sir, for any advice or help. I know this is silly. It’s the principle. — Sean Corcoran, Lawrence, Mass.

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Answer

This is not silly at all. If I bought all of the issues of National Geographic on CD-ROM and could no longer view them, I’d also be unhappy.

Before we go any further, a big disclaimer: I am National Geographic Traveler’s reader advocate and an editor at large for the magazine. My latest book, “How To Be The World’s Smartest Traveler,” was published by National Geographic.

I can’t be impartial in this case but I also can’t look the other way. So here I am.

National Geographic is right, in one sense. The technology it sold you back in 2000 is no longer supported, and my own research suggests that you wouldn’t be able to easily make the CDs you own backward-compatible with your current PC. (Possible? Perhaps. If there’s one thing I’ve learned from advocating these kinds of cases, it’s to never say never.)

Where my friends at the Society were wrong is in assuming that this was your problem, not theirs. When you appealed the rejection, you received a note that I find troubling.

“You said you feel you have been ‘wronged’ because this set no longer works,” a representative said. “As we have previously advised you, this product has been out of print, unavailable, and unsupported for a number of years now as new technologies and products have taken its place. We regret any inconvenience this has caused you.”

The email goes on to explain the problem of obsolescence

“While no one enjoys having to periodically replace or update our cell phones, computers, record players, vinyl records, 8-track players, videocassettes, VCRs, DVD players, dial-up Internet service, copper-cable telephone service, rooftop television antennas, home air-conditioners that use Freon, boomboxes, cars, analog television sets, incandescent lightbulbs, etc., ever-advancing technology sometimes requires it,” the representative noted.

She added, “Like every other business that sells electronic products, National Geographic has made products that are no longer sold because of advancements in the electronics industry. It is not a matter of ‘doing wrong’ to the customer but, rather, is the nature of technological advancement. No company can guarantee that an electronic product will never become outdated.”

She then suggested you find the new CD set at your local library.

I find this answer perfectly reasonable, from the organization’s perspective, but a little lacking in compassion. Maybe I’m being too hard on them; I hold National Geographic to a higher standard when it comes to customer service. After all, I work for the Society. I would have expected you to get some kind of offer to purchase the working CD edition at a discount, if possible. (Here’s our guide to resolving your consumer problem.)

Although it was a little awkward, my advocacy team and I contacted National Geographic on your behalf. It turns out the somewhat defensive response was a reaction to your phone conversation with a National Geographic representative, who felt you were “hostile and condescending” when you spoke with her. You apologized to her and National Geographic agreed to send you a new set of CDs.

What should National Geographic do about the obsolete CDs?

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Christopher Elliott

Christopher Elliott is the founder of Elliott Advocacy, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization that empowers consumers to solve their problems and helps those who can't. He's the author of numerous books on consumer advocacy and writes three nationally syndicated columns. He also publishes the Elliott Report, a news site for consumers, and Elliott Confidential, a critically acclaimed newsletter about customer service. If you have a consumer problem you can't solve, contact him directly through his advocacy website. You can also follow him on X, Facebook, and LinkedIn, or sign up for his daily newsletter.

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