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Apple Reliability: A Look at the Chaos Theory

So I was hanging out in The Tech Night Owl LIVE chat room the other night talking with some listeners, when one began to speak about USB-related problems with this 17-inch Apple LCD display. Earlier that day, a client dropped off his 700MHz eMac, complaining that he couldn’t get it to recognize his FireWire backup drive after upgrading to Mac OS 10.4.2. A few of you out there, a very vocal few I might add, have suffered from broken LCD displays on your brand new iPod nanos. During a brief conversation with a guest after recording an interview for the radio show, he went on to explain how his first-generation iMac G5 experienced a serious hardware failure.

Is there any connection between these events? Well, I haven’t even started and I could mention that vintage PowerBook I once owned, where some sort of adhesive would keep leaking from the bottom of the screen bezel. But that’s another era, long before Steve Jobs returned to Apple to rescue it from almost certain doom.

Let’s not forget iTunes 5, which shipped with serious bugs in both the Mac and Windows versions, or a certain Apple Security Update that broke 64-bit applications. Consider the serious flaws that seem to erupt in every single Apple product release. What makes matters worse is that these problems aren’t consistent. Not everyone is affected. For example, I installed iTunes 5 when it first came out and encountered no performance anomalies whatever. I had a 17-inch Apple display, and it functioned perfectly, even though it was a refurbished model. Oh well, maybe they addressed the bugs before it came my way.

Oh did I forget a certain Power Mac G5 model, with a 1.8GHz processor, which suffered from problems ejecting media, waking from sleep and other ills?

It’s not that these issues and the countless others that fill the pages of Mac support sites around the world impact everyone. Some are afflicted, some are immune. In fact, you can look at every single product Apple has ever released, from hardware to software and find a few people who confront serious problems of one sort or another. At the same time, you can find others who encountered no difficulties whatever, and continue to extol the incredible reliability of items bearing the Apple label.

Now I suppose you can attribute this chaotic situation to the sample-to-sample variations of hardware. From computers to cars, you are dealing with complicated devices that can and do fail from time to time. Software? Don’t get me started. The more sophisticated the program, the more problems exist. But again, not everyone is affected. One person says everything is fine, the next that the flaws are fatal and how could anyone release something so incredibly buggy?

It’s not that there are no solutions. In nearly every case, there are workarounds or fixes. Take that eMac. When I sat down and spent some face time with the computer, I found the owner had, over time, installed various and sundry third party system add-ons, some of which were old long before Tiger came about. I systematically uninstalled them one-by-one, and soon the FireWire drive mounted normally, and operated flawlessly. The iPod nano? Well, supposedly only 1,000 out of every million units suffer from flawed LCDs, and Apple will replace them, cheerfully one hopes. The iMac G5? Well, there is an extended warranty program covering some of those defects so if the failures occur within the appropriate time frame, you can be assured the product will be repaired.

Did I mention that I know several clients who bought an iMac G5 and never encountered a lick of trouble, and the screen on my iPod nano is perfect? Or perfect so far at least. Did I mention that Tiger seems to impact Mac users differently? Some love it, others are flummoxed by the rampant bugs and unpredictable behavior. It sounds like betting on the gaming tables in Las Vegas is more dependable, because you can usually depend that you’ll lose.

Lest we forget, Apple continues to maintain the reputation of having the most reliable personal computers on the planet. Yes, folks, if you think your Mac or its operating system is prone to trouble, you can be secure in the knowledge that other computers are worse, sometimes far worse. And let’s not forget the software bearing the Microsoft name on it. Yes, perhaps the Mac version of Word is more reliable than its Windows counterpart, but can did you happen to check out the user reports about the consequences of the most recent update to that program and the rest of the Office suite?

Just saying that it always gets worse before it gets better is an understatement. But, seriously, you wonder whether the random reports of trouble with nearly every product you can think of reflects the philosophy that disorder is the norm. Order is the exception. What a strange world we live in.