2003.05.15 PowerBook Repair

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Crisis of quality: Apple support on the PowerBook was a pain in the pocketbook. Remember the good ol days? When Apple cared about their customers and valued quality and their reputation? I do; though the memory is fading into the distant past. I have many stories about the "New" Apple. I hate constantly contrasting the "new" Apple with the "old" Apple, but there are differences that are just too obvious and startling not to notice. I have been trying to give them the benefit of the doubt, but they keep letting me down; and I can't seem to lower my expectations as fast as they can lower their realizations of them. The latest example is a long and sordid tale of "how not to manage customer relations" in regards to my PowerBook G4.

Buy me

In January 2001 Apple announced their new TiBook G4/500, and I was an early adopter. I bought one, site unseen, and got an early order in. Delays kept me from getting my machine for months; and I was a bit annoyed. But when I finally got the machine, I was happy. Hey, being too much in demand isn't such a bad thing; and there are unforeseen issues with delivering in quantity, I can overlook some of that. However, it is still not great customer relations to announce a machine long before you can deliver it.

I was using the machine and not unhappy. The back of the machine was designed by people that had either never actually used a portable, or figured that you'd never want to actually plug things into it. Yet the styling was beautiful and the machine was zippy enough. The airport support was weak; but was good enough for me. And the display was nice and big, though a little dim, had a single dead pixel, and I would have rather had a higher density display. Dead pixels happen, I wasn't going to pick nits. I wanted a CD-RW or DVD-RW, but figured I could upgrade later. Overall, it was reasonable compromises, and the form factor was delicious. I'd been generally happy to ecstatic with most Macs, and this machine was nice. Heck, I'd written an article that begged for Apple to produce such a machine and keep up with the market nearly a year before that machine was released; and later wrote a story praising them for doing their job and releasing good products.

No upgrade for you

Apple did fix a few things (like higher density display) and CD-RW within the year, but they really took their most anti-customer support policies I'd seen in a decade from the company: no ability to upgrade an older machine. Planned obsolescence is not a way to build a satisfied customer base, especially on such high end machines.

Unhinged

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None of that prior stuff was a big deal, just annoying. What was worse was that when I got the machine, the hinge cracked. They had a rash of those, and I called Apple, and wanted to get it fixed. The turn-around was long and I didn't have a replacement machine (and couldn't give up mine), so I waited for the turn-around to get shorter. Finally, 9 months after I'd gotten my machine (November of 2001), I gave up my machine for a turn around of "a couple days".

Even that amount of downtime would be expensive for me; so I bought an iBook for temporary usage, copied the files onto it, and sent my machine back, and waited. And waited. And called. And waited. I seem to remember it taking roughly a month to get my machine; though I wasn't keeping exact score. I was sure glad I'd got the iBook, or I would have been really pissed. It took a lot longer than they'd said, and weren't particularly helpful; "we're waiting for parts". And I'm thinking, I wouldn't have sent it in if you'd told me you didn't have the parts ready in the first place; and I'd asked. No brownie points on that repair.

Annoying, but hey, stuff happens. I finally got the machine, back, and moved my files back, got rid of the iBook at a loss (no surprise - it was less of a loss than I would have taken over being without a machine for a month); but was happily computing away on my old/new machine. And about a month later, the OTHER hinge broke.

I was getting more than a little annoyed. Still stuff happens.

Apple Store

Around Christmas (2001), my wife and I were doing our Christmas shopping; funny how those sync up like that. We went to Columbus, Ohio (about 2 1/2 hours from home) to mega shop, and because Apple had opened their Easton Town Center store a couple months before (in a mega-mall).

The Apple Store was clean, nicely laid out, and I enjoyed it. One of the best Apple shopping experiences I'd had in quite a while. But I wasn't as thrilled with the selection as I'd hoped to be; lots of glitz but missing some substance. I kept thinking, "where's the networked printers", "Where's the high end this" or "vertical that", and so on. They catered to the masses (iPeople) pretty well, and it was clean and nice; but they weren't catering to as many verticals or non mainstream as I'd like. Where was the SOHO solutions, developer solutions, and so on. I understand it was an Apple store, but I'd really hoped for more of a selection of third party devices that went with Macs.

I'd taken my broken PowerBook G4 with me, and showed them; figuring they're an Apple store, they can fix the Apple Computer; it was just a bloody hinge. I got no satisfaction. There was some spiel about how they were new and didn't have the ability to do that yet, and they don't carry those parts and I should just go home and do the whole mail thing with Apple corporate again. The PowerBook mail-in Ping-Pong, where you send it to them, and wait for them to send it back to you. Great. Thanks.

I got home and wasn't ready to give up the machine; and was busy. A couple months went by, and I realized I was getting close to out of warranty -- so I'd better call. Not to turn in my machine, but to just let them know that my machine was broken and to reserve my right to do so in the future. (This was April of 2002). I didn't have a replacement machine to use for now, and again, these bounce-backs are expensive for me.

Technically I was barely after the cusp of the 1 year warranty from when I'd gotten my machine, and just after the 90 day cusp of the last repair they'd done. They said I'd bought the machine in January, but the manufacture date on the machine was Feb 22, and I hadn't gotten it for weeks after that. They'd lost the repair log so they were being painful. Since I couldn't afford to give-up the machine until I had a temporary lined up (and my data copied over), I asked to log the repair request and I'd get to the repair later. But since I got to repairing it a little late (on a well known design flaw) they were being dicks.

No return for you

A year goes by as I was waiting for the release of the new TiBooks, so that I could replace my machine. Finally, Apple released the 1GHz TiBooks, and I was able to buy one - thus I could fix my old machine and sell it. I got the new machine in X-Mas of 2002.

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I got my new Machine setup, which was one of the more painful in the history of using Macs. Apple's new OS X works OK for me as a developer and geek; still there are many little quirks and issues with where something goes, or configurations that just aren't very Mac-like. Well, I get past most of that... and a few weeks later Apple releases another machine with a 17" display, which is the one I really wanted.

So I contacted CDW about a return (within the 90 day Window), and they said, "didn't you notice the little small asterisk" that references you to another page that mentions that 90 days doesn't apply to some companies, and then another page mentions who those companies are, and that Apple is one of them? You're outta luck buddy. I was quite annoyed at CDW over this but Apple isn't blameless: CDW is passing on the "no forgiveness" policies that Apple has. So I got burned and was stuck for a couple years on a lesser machine than I wanted.

While I understand some secrecy, them not announcing both machines at the same time, and offering the other one only a few weeks after the first was annoying bullshit. Customer expectations need to be managed, so customers feel good about their decisions and keep coming back. Apple screwed that up.

Apple Store Redux

I talked to a local store that still sells Macs and offers support; which are getting harder to find, because Apple's policies towards their 3rd party retailers are becoming infamous. I found a "local" store, which was 20+ miles away, and talked to them. The problem is that this was an extended service issue with my machine and, "I should really go to the Apple store to resolve the issue". Grrr. I hate the run-around; and the 2 1/2 hour drive to the nearest Apple store, so back to Columbus and the Apple store I go, again: after a couple months to get around to it.

I get to the Apple Store and show them the machine. Their explanation fits with mine; what likely happened is that when they replaced the first hinge, it made the tension wrong across hinges - so the second one broke. I used to be an Apple Tech; so I have a clue about the engineering of these machines. There was a problem with the first repair and was an Apple manufacturing problem anyways. However, since the Apple store doesn't actually do this kind of repair on-site, they suggested I contact the Apple-Care directly, and see if I could get the RMA (repair number) from them. Well fuck me. Two times I'd visited the store for repair, and both times they weren't able to do anything for me. I'd visited the store looking for support, software and hardware that they didn't carry.

Parts is parts

I used to be an Apple Technician. Heck, I used to build or modify computers in the age of wire-wrap and kits. I tried to just buy the part myself. While portables are complex to repair, I've taken them down to the metal before. The point is that a 5 dollar hinge isn't that big an issue. Many of these things take hours to take apart and put back together, but this is an extra machine - I'll do it myself if I have to. Oh wait, the new Apple has fixed that as well: they refused to sell parts direct, and they refused to allow 3rd Party Stores to buy the parts either (each part had to be registered to a particular approved repair). Apple blocked another avenue for customer satisfaction with their new policies. Pay us, or screw off.

Anti-Care

I get back from my trip, and call Apple. I waited on hold for about 20 minutes. This is one of the reasons I avoid calling Apple for support any more, because staffing Call-Centers adequately wasn't a priority and response times reflected the companies interest in my business. But I've got a headset phone, and was determined to solve this. Now it was a challenge.

Eventually, a human comes on, at least Ronny sounded human. I reiterate the whole story. Ronny was civil, but impotent, "Sorry, that's out of warranty and you don't have AppleCare. Not going to happen". But I registered the complaint a while back, multiple times. But this was a manufacturers flaw, and something they had repaired inadequately. But... but... but... common sense didn't apply to the new Apple. We went around for a few minutes, until I got annoyed. "Fine, just give me to escalation" - I know enough to know that the lowest level peons have no control, give me to some mid-level bureaucrat instead. This had to be a newbie mistake.

The manager (Summer) gets on, and is immediately telling me that instead of the $600 I should have to pay for Apple's design flaw, that she will "graciously" let me send it in on their flat-exchange rate of $330; or probably 1/3rd the value of the computer. I re-explain my story, again; because they obviously aren't getting it. I've bought 3 Macs for myself and dozens for my Company just since this has started. I've been a Mac customer for decades, and was one of their earliest developers (#220). I'm still a Mac writer, and so on. I'm playing all the cards in my deck just to see if there's any hope of them behaving like a customer centric company. But they just didn't care. The new policies were there for a reason, and I was that reason: take it or shove it. They kept with the excuse that it wouldn't be "fair" to people that had to pay for AppleCare if they honored their responsibilities without it.

They don't have a single record from the Apple Store visits; which somehow I'm responsible for. I didn't buy AppleCare, and if you don't buy AppleCare then they won't honor their responsibilities as manufacturers. Somehow charging six times what Dell charges for a 3 year support contract, and supporting it far worse (with mail ping-pong instead of onsite), was their idea of fairness? They couldn't understand. They were screwing me much less hard (at $300) than the usual $600-1200 to repair their design flaw: they thought I should be thanking them.

I had exhausted every option available to me: I went through their escalation process, pleaded to internal people I knew, I tried their customer relations (which only accepts write-in snail mail). I'm more savvy and experienced and patient than the average customer. I know it would have been cheaper to just pay; but it was the principle - how bad was the new Apple? I was determined to find out.

After sending in my complaint, someone (Jason) called me up, and made continual excuses for why Apple wasn't going to stand by their product. Their tech people say the broken hinge problem isn't common enough to warrant repair. They softly started down the accusations again; blaming me for the breakage, I must have dropped it, and so on. I know the tactic is to guilt a person into thinking something that is Apple's design flaw is the customer's fault, so they'll go away. The end result was that Apple didn't care; it is not about making customers happy or standing behind their products, but their own pocketbooks.

After searching and reading horror stories of Apple demanding $1200, I was getting off easy. I gave up hope; paid the extra few hundred dollars extortion to Apple, and sent it in. Apple felt I should be thankful that I was getting screwed much less hard than most customers with this problem; somehow that wasn't comforting. Normally, I paid a premium for Apple equipment, because of the quality of equipment, lifespan, and service I used to get. This time, I had lower quality and lower service, at a higher price.

One more time

Apple mailed me a box, and I mailed them back my computer; they would repair it and send it back to me. The normal PowerBook ping-pong - or something I'd gotten used to with a few different iPod repairs (which is another, but similar story). This time was a little special in that the carrier (Airborne Express) got lost, and argued with us on the phone about our address and where we lived. (He'd gone to the right address, in the wrong city/Zip).

Unlike my first PowerBook repair, this one was prompt; and turn around took only a week. Wow, maybe things had gotten better. Maybe I'd been rash?

I open the box, and lift up my new screen. It works. Ta da! Maybe I can be happy. Then I notice there's a nice big scratch (about 3 1/2 inches long) across the middle of the display -- and this display has about 6 dead pixels, and other scratches and pock marks. They said they replaced all the plastics (titanium parts) but some had my old scratches, and hadn't replaced the rubber feet that fall off in a stiff breeze. I didn't care about replacing the old parts or not, but don't put it on the manifest if you haven't done it. I was peeved.

So back to the phone I go. Another 20 minutes on hold, and I have to explain the story again. They lookup my information, see the history, and immediately hand me up the food chain and hang up on me in the process. (sigh). Fortunately, the new person calls me back, and I explain the problem again. Thanks for fixing the hinges, but I want a screen that was in at least the condition that my old one was. They were cordial and apologetic and sent out another box, for another round of PowerBook Ping-Pong, and another week of downtime. And Airborne Express got lost again, by not looking at the city/Zip.

Conclusion

I finally got the PowerBook back, and it works, and has a new display. They got the last repair right, finally; or this would be an even longer article. They put on a new display that was immaculate, replaced the entire case (which didn't need to be done), cleaned it up nicely, and really did a good job. So it ended well; relatively. But none of that changes the process.

I'm sure there are good experiences as well; but I can only write about my own. It was a good machine in many ways, but way too delicate. Apple artificially made it way too expensive for me over all with bad policies and attitude. If I was alone it would be one thing; but I've had many friends and acquaintances that have been telling me similar stories of woe. If you've followed the Mac-Web, you've probably read a few. But Apple can charge a premium price for a premium product, but I expect premium customer service. If they can't do that, then I might was well buy a few discount laptops for the price of one unreliable Apple one.

Written: 2003.06.14