from the please-insert-$20-to-continue dept
For those of you who have wondered whether a cat litter box could achieve the same functionality as an inkjet printer, CatGenie has the answer for you. Jorge Lopez covered his experience with his brand-new purchase at Medium, swiftly discovering the downside of the litter box that cleans itself. While it does take care of most of the nasty business (disposing of feces — although occasionally leaving one behind to be baked into “poop jerky” by the heated cleaning cycle), it only does so if properly loaded with specific products made and sold by CatGenie.
The CatGenie is not without it’s consumables. It requires these theCatGenie Washable Granules, which are little pieces of hard plastic designed to be washed and not taken up by the cleaning mechanism. There’s also the SaniSolution SmartCartridge, which is a cartridge of fresh smelling cleaning solution needed to wash the granules.
Contained within the SmartCartridge is an RFID chip that tracks fluid levels and turns the automatic litter box into a useless stinkhole once the fluid runs out. It can’t be tricked into believing you’ve refilled it. It can only be replaced with a new one. Like any number of printers that won’t let you print/scan/copy without replacing an ink cartridge, the wonderful, self-cleaning litter box refuses to do anything but collect cat excrement until new cartridges are installed.
That’s a $200+ litter box that becomes indiscernible from the $6.99 non-auto version once the proprietary cleaning fluid runs out. You’ll need a $20+ cartridge to get up and running again. While Jorge Lopez likes the self-cleaning aspects of the litter box, he’s less than thrilled to be in possession of a bricked shithouse.
This made me realize that I don’t actually own a CatGenie, I’m renting it. Though I paid for it, I have to pay per use yet I’m still responsible for all repairs until it craps out and I have to get another one. A tad disheartening.
Fortunately, there are workarounds. CatGenie users who are irritated by both the inkjet-style “DRM” and other issues with cleaning cycles have compiled their own custom firmware to override the negative aspects of CatGenie’s pay toilet.
“CatGenie can’t run without SaniSolution, like a car can’t run without petrol.” is often heard. But that’s a flawed analogy and an insult to most people’s intellect because it’s the laws of physics that prevent a car from running without petrol, but it’s a flaky business model that prevents CatGenie from running without SaniSolution. When this project first started, early 2010, I didn’t know what cleaning agent to use, so I decided to postpone this selection procedure. But after running without any cleaning agent for over a year, my test box was no dirtier (or cleaner) than my standard box, proving that the box can run without cleaning agent very well.
Not that CatGenie is very happy with having its flaky business model circumvented. While the two fixes posted by Jorge Lopez are still live, rooting around the internet a bit shows the company has issued cease-and-desist orders in the past, targeting third-party products that turn the litter box into an owned product, rather than an eternally-rented service.
The damage hasn’t been too widespread, however. For one, a $200-$300 litter box is a niche product, something owned by far fewer people than, say, Keurig’s DRM-laden coffee maker. For another, the workarounds aren’t nearly as simple as taping a label to a scanner, requiring far more investment in skill, time and money than most people are willing to part with to truly take ownership of their CatGenie.
That being said, the underlying concept is severely flawed. Tying people into lifelong purchases is every manufacturer’s dream, but it’s nearly every consumer’s nightmare. Hobbling a purchased product just to harness an additional revenue stream is no way to run a business. And, of course, when put in the position of defending its DRMed cat box, PetNovations (CatGenie’s manufacturer) — like Keurig — claims it’s all about safety.
While I cannot say we support what you are doing, I can say that while cartridge sales are a part of our business model, they are also important to the safe function of the CatGenie. We have already had people try to refill and ruin their floors, gummed up the inside of their unit etc. That is why we sell a cartridge that is sealed with a safe but effective cleaning solution that has been tested to ensure that is not just safe for people, but just as safe for our target user your cat.
But that’s just a dodge. The company could easily provide information on safe refilling, as well as license third-party vendors to produce cheaper and/or refillable cartridges. But rather than work within the confines of its high-end litter box market, it has also chosen to lock up the technology that would make the product more convenient and more affordable. By doing so, it has ensured it will never reach its stated goal of being the litter box “for everyone.” There are plenty of ways to effectively monetize cartridges without turning CatGenie owners into mere renters, but PetNovations has chosen to do things the Lexmark way — remove functionality until “rent” is collected.