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Don't You Whine Either!

An history of how things that supposedly just work don't.


One thing is clear: Apple marketing are fantastic. They more than even Jonathan Ive define what people perceive as good design, and they more than in most companies are able to perpetrate myths about production quality - to propagate phrases, aphorisms, purported truisms about their products. Which the consuming public mostly swallow hook line and sinker.

The Apple 'out of the box' experience can be thrilling, but the question is how much of this is due to detail and how much is Apple marketing hype customers buy into.

For one more thing is painfully clear: for countless Apple customers world wide, Apple computers do not 'just work' and are not 'insanely great'. And what's worse, because Apple marketing are so fiercely protective of their image, complaints are largely ignored, and only in a few cases, when said customers can organise class action protests and lawsuits, do Apple ever relent.

Apple have huge discussion forums online - for what purpose many have wondered, for should any criticism of the company and its products seep in, Apple employees whose job it is to patrol these forums will delete the controversial posts. Nothing is allowed to tarnish Apple's image as a 'perfect company' with 'perfect products'.

The OSx86 Project are currently organising a protest against flaws in Apple's new Intel-based MacBook Pro laptop computer - but this is only the latest in a long list of controversies Apple marketing continue to try to sweep under the rug.

The Power Mac G4 Cube

Apple's G4 Cube has been discontinued. It was overpriced but also had design flaws. And Apple staunchly refused to accept responsibility for the flaws, making the G4 Cube dead on the market. You can read CNET's report on the controversy here.

The Cube suffered from a cosmetic design flaw - which might have mattered less if the price of a Cube hadn't been so astronomical. As Gartner analyst Chris LeToq put it, 'in a stylish design like this, people are paying for style, and apparent cracks aren't style'.

Hair thin cracks appeared around two rivets on the top of the Cube, the DVD drive, and the Apple logo on the system's front.

The complaints sent to Apple were not insignificant in number. Apple marketing VP Phil Shiller admitted they 'show up as a top support call driver - people do ask about it - there's no doubt about it' - but otherwise totally dismissed their validity.

'We are not aware of - and I don't believe there is any issue with - the longevity of the material and anything becoming or emerging as a weakness or crack over time. There is no information that we have that's the case.'

Schiller's dismissal left Cube owners bewildered and angered. They'd been sending in more and more information to Apple about the flaw - and Apple's response was to feign ignorance.

'These cracks that I am referring to are not mold lines - they are cracks', a forum poster wrote. 'You can see them, feel them, watch them grow.'

And as protests against the flaw grew, Apple changed tack: instead of simply denying there was anything wrong, they sent out their forum patrol to clean up. The Power Mac forum moderator finally closed things down with the following.

Additional posts on this topic will likely be removed unless they contribute new information to the topic. You are welcome to post your opinions and other comments to any of the third party hosted discussion forums.

By June 2001 supplies of the G4 Cube were dwindling, even though all models were still listed at Apple's website; by July the Cube was officially discontinued.

And Apple gave their G4 Cube customers neither recognition nor recompense for their grievance.

The Power Mac G4 'MDD'

On 13 August 2002 Apple released a successor to the Cube, the Power Mac G4 'MDD' ('mirrored drive doors'). No more risk of fissures, but another even more annoying flaw surfaced.

Almost immediately users reported excessive noise from the unit which was quickly labeled the 'windtunnel'. Less than a month later Tom Boger of Apple marketing responded with 'it generates about the same amount of noise as the previous pro systems.'

The follow-up is regarded as one of the more interesting customer relation stories in Apple's history - a story about how a single dissatisfied customer succeeded in organising a global protest and finally get Apple to give in.

Richard Hoefer, a film maker and longtime Mac user from San Francisco, built a $15 K editing suite around a Dual 1 GHz G4 MDD - but within half an hour of turning it on was forced to power down because of a loud incessant headache inducing whine emanating from inside.

Hoefer turned to Apple's discussion forums and found he was not alone. Several threads were already blazing with dozens of reports about the acoustic assault from the new machines. He also found Apple had already decided on their course of action.

Denial.

Several independent sources recorded the units emitting noise in the 60 - 70 dB range, well above what Apple said was normal for previous units in the series and well above the ISO 9296 IT standard which Apple claimed they aspired to.

Noise levels in the new units were up to four times what they'd been previously and three to four times the permissible.

But the worst wasn't the noise but the high pitch pure tone whines in the 1-2 KHz range, one of the most sensitive ranges of the human hearing spectrum, capable of inducing nausea and even vomiting.

Which says nothing for the audio pros trying to use the equipment: the noise level, the whine, and yet other whines from the CPU fan and the motherboard itself made the units unusable.

And the design flaws weren't limited to noise. Despite all the cooling mechanisms, it turned out the unit was not well designed or properly tested. Heat accumulation could be so severe PCI cards failed almost immediately after first use.

And as Hoefer dug deeper into the issue, he discovered that Apple had deliberately specified new parts known to have high noise ratings. 250,000 dissatisfied customers and Apple continued to deny. Their response in such matters will always include the phrase 'within spec' - without ever revealing what the 'spec' is.

But it gets worse when you realise customers were dismissed in this fashion over the phone. Apple weren't measuring noise levels in flawed units - they were simply dismissing the complaints.

Some users were now reporting a noise level of 80 dB - eight times the 'tolerable' according to the ISO - and so Hoefer organised a petition. He started the "List for AppleCare' thread on 11 November 2002 at the Apple forums. 232 users signed on to the list - and then Apple deleted it.

Apple released a 'firmware update' fifteen days later which reduced leaf blower noise when running OS 9 and told customers this was the only fix they needed and that the power supply was not the problem.

In response to Apple's latest, Hoefer started a Yahoo mailing list four days later on 30 November 2002.

He called the list 'G4 Noise'.

G4 Noise grew rapidly to almost 500 members and averaging over twenty posts per day. Nearly everyone had a report of an unsatisfactory encounter with Apple customer service. Many said this would be their last Mac, including switchers flabbergasted by their first experience with Apple.

The g4noise.com domain went online one week later on 6 December 2002. The most compelling content was a series of short films made by some of the creative professionals dramatising their plight.

Six days later on 12 December a forum member organised the formal petition at Petition Online. The petition garnered 700 signatures.

Hoefer now wanted to get a write up in the domestic US Mac press, but found that difficult. Mainstream Mac journalists, Hoefer found, are too dependent on Apple to risk going out on a limb for Apple customers.

Hoefer did however get several journalists to promise to take the matter up with Apple at the coming Macworld.

And Hoefer got a response - but not the one he'd been hoping for. On 14 January 2003 Apple published their knowledge base article 42948 stating 'increased noise levels are expected with dual processor computers'. This and the previous actions of the Apple forum patrols only got customers more enraged.

A core group of two dozen customers began assembling a package; on 20 January 2003 the 'G4 Noise Letter Petition & Database' was sent to Apple customer relations executives including Apple CEO Steve Jobs, and the following day translated versions were sent to 19 Apple representatives in 17 countries: all international Apple CEOs, AppleCare representatives, and marketing and hardware managers. Several of the international recipients responded politely and dismissed the matter, but no one who received the package in the US wrote back.

Suddenly, out of the blue, Apple released a new MDD model on 28 January 2003. Again Tom Boger speaks to the press, this time acknowledging the noise issue; and Apple marketing VP Greg Joswiak told the press: 'they are significantly quieter - these will answer the critics'. Outside contacts later confirmed that Apple had been working on quieter components for five months - all the while denying there was an issue.

As the previous quarter of a million customers were deftly left out of the equation, several wrote to Apple to enquire if modifications could now be made to their faulty units. Apple told them the 'new' parts would not work in the older model, despite it being otherwise identical. Further, Apple told them that if they were so dissatisfied they could always buy the new model and use it instead [sic].

Several customers did sell their unusable units - and bought Windows PCs instead. Several others began discussing the possibility of a class action lawsuit and the need to proceed before warranties ran out. Several others turned to the Better Business Bureau. Then Apple called.

On 5 February 2003 Patrick Ekstrand, assistant to head of executive relations Jeanne Toulouse, called Hoefer at home. Ekstrand's good news was that Apple were aware of the noise issue and 'took it very seriously'; his bad news was that he professed to have no information about what Apple would do about it and wouldn't tell Hoefer even if he did [sic].

Two days later on 7 February a second package was sent to the same Apple executives as before; on 10 February translations of the package were sent as well. The accompanying letter stated that the recalcitrance of Apple to fix the noise issue must be resolved within fourteen days to prevent the group from 'taking the matter further'.

As Hoefer and his core group worked on various strategies, leaks from Cupertino indicated some sort of 'fix' was imminent.

On 20 February core group member Phil LeFebre made one last call to Apple to find out if any progress had been made. LeFebre's support rep told him she was not allowed to 'talk about any future plans and won't know anything until it is officially announced'. The following day Hoefer wrote to LeFebre.

It seems true. The PS fix is announced at apple.com.

And it was - finally. The 'MDD Power Supply Exchange Program' offered the quarter of a million customers what Apple had previously insisted was impossible: the new quieter power supply and CPU fan from the new G4s. All models are eligible for the program, said the Apple site; the program would end on 30 June. The new components started shipping in volume seven weeks later.

The Power Mac G5/1.8 Single

The MDD story ended on a happy - if belated - note, but stranger things were to come with the Power Mac G5/1.8 Single released on October 19 2004 and dubbed 'The Buggiest Macintosh Ever™'.

The model was sold in Europe until 19 July 2005. The model released on 23 June 2003 and discontinued on 18 November 2003 does not suffer from the same issues.

Thomas Voßen of Aachen Germany created the g5freeze.com domain to address the issues he experienced with his unit. Specifically Voßen noticed the unit could 'freeze' for a period of up to two hours [sic].

After checking that you have the 'wrong' model to test the 'freeze' with, Voßen recommends the following.

Voßen got nowhere with Apple support and attempted continually to fix the issue on his own. He bought his system in December 2004, had AppleCare exchange the SuperDrive, himself replaced the harddrive, installed 10.4.0, reduced RAM, installed a Geforce 6800 Ultra DDL, replaced the logic board in mid-2005, and performed every update through 10.4.2.

Voßen filed a bug report and on 30 July 2005 received a response from Apple's Jeff Lemas; nothing further happened. By September there were hints of an imminent 'bugfix'. One of Voßen's site readers even reported Apple support asking him to return his borrowed machine because of the imminent update.

By August Voßen had the names of 100 customers with the same issue. 'Still no official comment from Apple', Voßen wrote for the occasion.

A month later Voßen waxed despondent. 'For more than ten weeks we were told by Apple there would be an update soon. While this is technically no lie, it is still a slap in our faces', he wrote.

Finally on 29 September Apple recognised the issue. This but still no time frame for the fix. Indications were it would come by the beginning of October at the latest, but when 30 October arrived Voßen again waxed despondent.

There are no signs of a bugfix. As some readers reported (thank you guys!), Macfixit posted a news item about a late build of 10.4.3 which shows no improvement concerning the bugs of our computers. I do not know if 10.4.3 is supposed to fix the bugs - or if a firmware update should fix the machines - or even both. And this theory still leaves the question, what about the users who are still using Mac OS X 10.3.x?

While we see no advancement from Apple's side, the problem can be solved not only by technical means. Let's discuss the term Customer Service and Consumer Protection Laws.

In Europe there is a guideline that has to be implemented into local laws: 99/44/EG. The interesting part is paragraph 10. Basically it says that the dealer is allowed to repair a broken item or you may accept a replacement. If the repair fails you can either get a reduction of the price or your money back.

If you read your warranty carefully, you notice that Apple says, that they have the rights to repair broken hardware. And there is a passage about consumer protection laws which says, that Apple warranty does not restrict your local laws.

In Germany this can be reduced to the following fact: your dealer is allowed to repair your computer up to two times. If after the second repair the flaw is still not repaired, then you have the legal right to cancel a purchase - and get your money back. Even better is the fact that you may cancel a purchase before two failed repairs if your dealer refuses to repair an item.

What is not a fact in these laws is the question, how long a repair should take. A general advice I got from a lawyer of a german consumer protection agency was 'at most two weeks for technical devices'.

So while I still hope for an update that solves the problem in a technical way, I wanted to give you an idea about the other solution. This is of course connected to a lot more stress than waiting for an update - but how long are you willing to wait?

If you are just reading this page and are not interested in getting on the list because you think 'Apple will offer a solution soon' then do yourself att least one favor: make a call to Apple Support and report your machine as defective, if only to have a valid claim for your warranty.

Voßen notes in a post from 1 November that update 10.4.3 is out but evidently still does not solve the 'freeze' issue. He has now waited on a fix for eleven months.

On 15 November Apple released a firmware update that ostensibly fixed the issue - over one year after it was first reported.

In this last paragraph I would like to thank everybody who wrote me a mail to get on the list. Without your support we would not have been able to get so much public awareness. I do not know if this webpage had any influence on Apple - but from your mails I know that I was able to help at least some of you.

Thank you very much.
Thomas

There's More

There are further stories about massive failures at Apple, both on the production line and in corporate sensitivity to customers.

  • The iBook logic board flaw. Apple finally began a repair program on 17 December 2004.

  • iBook screen failures. Due to a design flaw, wires to iBook screens, passing through the lid hinge, wore through over an extended period of time as the computers were opened and closed. This failure typically occurred once the one year warranty had expired. Apple refused to repair the wires and offered only to replace the screens themselves - to a cost equal the original purchase price of the entire unit.

  • The irreplaceable iPod batteries. Apple had no plan for replacing batteries in the iPod; when customers enquired, Apple told them to go out and buy a new unit [sic]. It wasn't until a street campaign in New York City was organised against Apple that they relented.

  • The 15 inch aluminium PowerBook G4 display flaw. Due to inadequate support for the screen, G4 PowerBook screens started exhibiting white spots. The affected units were manufactured in the fall of 2003; Apple began a repair program a year later.

  • iMac G5 video and power issues. This issue affected first generation iMac G5 computers sold between September 2004 and June 2005. Symptoms were scrambled/distorted/no video or no power [sic]. Apple began their repair program on 11 February 2006 [sic].

Cupertino Roulette

At the end of the day you're playing a game of chance. The treat you find when you open the box might be all you want it to be - then again it might not. Today, when 'support' is increasingly anything but, you're going to be in dire straits if that's the case.

Which for a few hundred paltry dollars might not matter much - but when you make an outlay for the computer equivalent of a BMW, is that what you want?

Can you imagine Bayerische Motorwerken treating you like that?

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