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The Plight of the Apple Early Adopter

In light of my peculiar line of work, I am one of the first on the block — at least my block — to adopt a new computer-related gadget, and certainly I’m pretty quick to install an upgraded operating system or application. Of course, this sort of behavior entails certain compromises.

One, of course, is that I am more apt than most to suffer from serious early release bugs, assuming there are any true show stoppers. So when I bought an original 17-inch MacBook Pro in May of 2006, I had to replace the battery just a few months later, because it would no longer sustain a charge. That particular issue was fairly common with that model. In addition, it wasn’t so cool running that you could call it a laptop computer. But if you live in a cold climate, maybe it didn’t matter.

Sure, Apple released updates to make the cooling fans run more efficiently, but the improvements weren’t so significant. With the Early 2008 version I have now, it feels warm at the bottom, but not uncomfortably so. Indeed, I can characterize it as a true laptop now, although I suspect if I did lots of processor-intensive stuff, even the cooling fans — which run twice as fast under normal circumstances as the ones in my original MacBook Pro — would be hard-pressed to tame the rising temperatures.

I also encountered a couple of iPods that had hard drive failures, but I can’t say if those symptoms were caused by the fact that they were early production units. In fact, I still have one of them, a third-generation model, which I might either fix some day or sell cheaply to a tinkerer to rebuild. I’m not sure.

When it comes to operating systems, I can tell you that the first release is always somewhat shaky, whether it comes from Apple or Microsoft. I can understand the criticisms that Apple’s marketing staff seems to have a greater influence on product release schedules than the engineering division. But only one Mac OS X release came back to bite me, when there was a bug that might cause a partition map failure on some FireWire 800 drives. It struck when I was selling a Power Mac G4, and had updated it to the latest and greatest Mac OS — I think it was the original release of Panther — and I’m sure you readers will correct me and chastise me appropriately for not doing my research first.

In any case, I was backing up data to the drive, which the customer was also purchasing. The drive failed, although a firmware update, and a quick OS fix from Apple, made it possible to continue to use the device. But having this happen when I was trying to make a sale proved particularly embarrassing. Fortunately, I was able to talk my way out of this dilemma.

As you recall, Apple delayed Leopard, ostensibly because they had to commit developers to finishing the iPhone version of OS X last year, but 10.5 had a serious Finder bug that could cause corrupted or lost data when copying data to a network share. That’s why there was a quick 10.5.1 update that addressed that problem and some others. The bug only appeared if you used an obscure Finder option to move rather than just copy the file, and some suggest it was a long-standing Mac OS X problem, but somehow it became worse — or was only noticed — with the arrival of Leopard.

In recent days, the iPhone 3G has gotten its share of lumps, ostensibly because of a problem with the 3G chips that may result in slower performance on a cluttered network or chronic dropped calls. I haven’t seen it, but certainly the issue is serious enough to have resulted in widespread coverage by the mainstream media. If it involves a defective chip, it could entail a major recall, but the published reports so far indicate that Apple is working on a near-term firmware fix that will address the issue. No recall necessary.

Of course, Apple isn’t saying, and AT&T, for example, claims that the iPhone 3G experience is excellent and that no fixes are required. It also seems that the issue may only impact areas where there are a lot of them in use simultaneously. So, if this is the case, people in the San Francisco area might encounter this problem more often than others, I suppose.

Once again, I don’t know, except that I expect that the first release of any major new product is apt to be fraught with problems of one sort or another. Certainly, Apple released a number of iPhone firmware updates to repair system and security issues with the first generation model. Within weeks after iPhone 2.0 came out (and there were actually two released versions with different build numbers), version 2.0.1 appeared.

In September, Apple is promising an update that will offer a push notification feature that will make it easier for instant messaging applications and other connectivity products to function. I suppose any troubles that might impact your ability to get a good wireless connection could be fixed then as well. But it’s not that Apple has been terribly forthright about such matters. Generally they’ll only comment if an issue is widespread enough to impact a significant number of customers.

I suppose if you want to be cautious about these things, you might hold off buying any new stuff made by Apple for a couple of months until things settle down.

But it’s not just Apple. Just the other day, I received a Panasonic Blu-ray DVD player for testing, one built in June 2008. When I consulted the company’s support site, I found there was already a downloadable firmware revision for it. The 2.2 update, for the DMP-BD30 player is designed to improve “playability and stability.”

So when it comes to an economy of words for product updates, Apple is clearly in good company.