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  • Hung Up on Apple’s Terrible Flaws?

    May 18th, 2006

    Some years back I ran an occasional series by the name of “war stories,” in which I suggested that Apple’s quality control had taken a big turn for the worse. At the time, I ran into situations where Macs had suffered hardware failures, and something had to be done to address these problems.

    Looking a the matter from this vantage point, I went back to the earliest Macs and found occasional failures, not that that many happened to me, but you have to expect that with a mass produced product. The worst offender was a PowerBook 5300ce, which set me back around five grand when I bought one. As you might recall, Apple actually had a special warranty program for that particular form factor to address problems with the power cord, logic board and screen bezel, among other things. The latter afflicted my unit on several occasions, where some sealant poured out at the base of the display. It went back to Apple two or three times, and, when I sold it to a local Mac user group leader, he sent it back yet again before finding another “victim” for the computer. Now it worked well enough, but these quality control lapses were annoying.

    It wasn’t the beginning, nor the end. Over the years, Apple has had extended repair programs for the logic board of the iBook and for hardware problems with the first generation of the iMac G5. On another occasion, I actually found a serious defect on a PowerBook I received for review from Apple Computer. The screen would occasionally display white strips. The unit went back to fix a problem with the cable for the LCD display, but you get the picture. These are mass produced products, and Apple and its third party assembly plants build millions every year. Even in the best of times, and these is surely not the worst, a small number will suffer from early failures.

    Over the years, commentators who evidently don’t do their research will comment on such matters, talking about early failures with iPods and Macs and wondering if Apple’s vaunted quality control has somehow suffered. Now if you examine the product reliability ratings at Consumer Reports magazine, which are actually based on some very general user surveys that really don’t ask many detailed questions, you’ll find that Apple rates at the top or close to the top compared to the other PC makers. It’s no longer the best at note-books, no doubt due to the iBook issues and other matters, but it’s close enough not to be terribly significant.

    Have things gotten any better? Well, you know that some of those early production runs of the iPod nano had faulty screens, and many still complained about a tendency to scratch that seemed worse than on other models. If you were lucky enough to get one of the first MacBook Pros off the production line, you may have wondered about an excessive whine emanating from the unit, or the apparent excess heat. The former, if annoying, can be repaired by Apple, and some of you have already had the appropriate parts replaced. The latter appears to be subjective, but note that these computers are never referred to as laptops, but note-books. But I can see the advantage in the dead of winter, although that is a concept that may not seem so funny if your legs feel the heat.

    Software? It never stops at version 1.0 anywhere. Apple’s first edition of its photo editing application, Aperture, was plagued by some serious defects, and a few observant critics gave Apple its share of brickbats for a premature and buggy release. There were even reports, never confirmed mind you, that the original Aperture development team was reassigned or discharged for its faulty work. Regardless of the truth of the matter, the application has undergone some heavy-duty revisions, and a $200 price cut. But the latter may also be due to the fact that Adobe is now engaged in a public beta test of a similar application, known as Lightroom.

    To be sure, competition can spur a company to greater heights of excellence, at least most of the time, or it should at any rate.

    But Apple’s apparent problems don’t end with a single new application. Look at the entire software roster and you’ll see the inevitable point one update and then some to address various and sundry issues. Tiger is at 10.4.6 and there are rumors that a 10.4.7 might be in our near future, and perhaps a 10.4.8 after that. Every single update is greeted with cries from some users that it is fatally flawed, and that developers need to go back to the drawing boards to set things right.

    So has Apple lost control of its software development process too? Not necessarily. If you pour through the history of the Mac OS, you’ll find that the floors of the development labs are littered with failed releases, and fixer-uppers of one sort or another inevitably appear. Sometimes a release is so bug-ridden, you wonder how it ever made it past the quality control process, but it will never be perfect.

    Understand that I’ve encountered problems with only a few of my Macs over the years. When it comes to operating systems, my experiences have been equally positive, if you forget about that dreadful 7.5.2 release. True, the initial versions of Mac OS X were slow as molasses and shorn of key features, but they ran pretty well otherwise. As an early adopter, or self-styled guinea pig if you well, I tend to download everything Apple throws into my Software Update panel. That may be a dangerous posture, but it gives me something to write about. On the other hand, I seldom run into trouble. My up times on all my Macs extend into the days or weeks, and I actually have a Dashboard widget, iStat pro, that keeps tabs on such things.

    At the same time, a few of the people who regularly report to Mac troubleshooting sites evidently suffer endless grief. It doesn’t matter what Apple does, they will find their Macs suffering from bouts of freeze-ups, crashes or the inability to start. I presume that most of these people are being honest about their experiences, mind you, and that their problems are genuine. At the same time, except for the few that affect large numbers of people with different installation scenarios, I often suspect many of those reports are highly localized. Maybe they spent a little too much time with system add-ons, or trying to hack the guts of Mac OS X in the Terminal, and things went badly. Maybe a clean installation will set things right, or maybe it’s a hardware-related issue, such as defective RAM.

    I don’t pretend to know why some encounter endless troubles and others just get work done, and I tend to remain in the latter camp for the most part. Maybe it’s a run of bad luck. Maybe it’s the failure to pat the top of your Mac every so often, saying “nice doggy.” Whatever the cause, Apple should never stop trying harder. Everything it does these days is under the microscope, and failures that will go unnoticed on the Windows platform become front page news.

    Besides, folks like me who deliver Mac-related content will always need something to write about, and Apple will almost always accommodate, whether it wants to or not.



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