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  • The 27-inch iMac Aftermath: Does Apple Ship Too Early?

    December 16th, 2009

    I suppose there’s an eternal battle between a company’s product engineering and marketing departments. The former wants to deliver something as close to sheer perfection as possible, while the latter needs something to sell and deliver income to the company. As you might suspect, these goals are usually out of alignment.

    You just know, for example, that Apple wants to get certain products out to meet a long-term schedule. Early in the year, you may see consumer products, such as new note-books and perhaps the latest versions if iLife and iWork. Mid-year, the WWDC delivers professional gear and perhaps word of a new operating system. Since the iPhone appeared, there have been June and July updates. For the fall, September is devoted to the iPod, and additional consumer Macs generally appear in October.

    As some of you will remind me, there have been notable Apple product introductions in March and other parts of the year, but it’s always on cycle and always consistent with their long-term marketing strategy.

    This is well and good, but what happens when a key product isn’t available to meet the expected shipping timeframe?

    Well, I suppose that was true for the 27-inch iMac with quad-core processors. They didn’t actually begin to reach customers until late October, and Apple originally promised November. However, as some of you know, the process wasn’t seamless. Although we’ll never know the actual numbers, some customers got defective units. Even though they exhibited no apparent shipping damage, a small number evidently arrived with cracked screens. Customers continue to complain about display defects, such as flickering and bands of yellow.

    As I’ve said before, I’ve been lucky so far. After 15 days, my 27-inch quad-core iMac remains defect free, at least so far.

    The larger question takes us back to eternal development/shipping conflict. While Apple will occasionally push shipping dates out, they are usually by never more than a few weeks. But what if a serious production hangup blows that shipping date out the window? Would that have prevented the complaints about the 27-inch iMac?

    Let’s return to the last decade. Remember when Apple first introduced a PowerPC-based PowerBook using lithium-ion batteries. There were a few incidents involving smoking or overheating because of unknown battery problems, so Apple delayed production a few months and returned to the older battery technology. You didn’t get the same battery life, but at least it didn’t smoke. On the other hand, these PowerBooks were riddled with defects anyway, involving logic boards, screen bezels and so forth and so on. I remember spending upwards of five grand buying a 5300ce, and sending it back to Apple several times. The new owner returned it for repair a couple of more times before he passed it off to a third party.

    When Apple first delivered Intel-based note-books, let’s not forget that the things ran awfully hot. Ongoing cooling fan tweak updates addressed some of that, but not the discoloration on the surface of some MacBooks. And, yes, there were reports of swollen batteries and other issues too.

    In my case, I got one of the early 17-inch MacBook Pros. Yes, it ran a mite hot, but the real problem was that the battery wouldn’t sustain a charge after a few months of use. The black MacBook we got my son, Grayson, in 2008, also had a defective battery. In both cases, Apple quickly replaced the offending parts without any complaints.

    Let’s not forget the raft of defective power supplies that afflicted the iMac G5. I had one client who encountered that defect twice. The first time he brought it to a third-party dealer who didn’t bother to remind me that Apple had an extended warranty program in place to handle those repairs, and charged him anyway. Maybe it was double dipping. Fortunately, he contacted Apple the second time out and got another repair free, plus a promise from Apple service to help him get back the money he shouldn’t have paid for the initial repair.

    When it comes to software, you just know that installing any point-zero release is probably a bad idea. One Mac OS X version had a bug that damaged the partition map of some FireWire 800 drives, meaning you couldn’t access the data. Another had a nasty Finder bug that damaged or deleted a file if you moved, rather than copied it, to another drive or network share. More recently, that notorious Guest account bug in Snow Leopard would occasionally delete your regular user account when you switched from Guest.

    In the end, all of these problems and lots more were eradicated. But you have to wonder why such blatant problems weren’t discovered and dealt with before release, rather than after an unknown number of users were hurt. The solution may have worked, but what about the people who lost data?

    Looking at these situations, it may well be that some of these issues just weren’t anticipated before the products came out. Maybe they only appeared as the result of a unique combination of circumstances that remained under the radar or couldn’t be nailed down. I hesitate to say that Apple simply allowed these problems to happen.

    Regardless of what really went on behind the scenes, I have to hope Apple is learning a few lessons along the way and will be more cautious going forward before they rush products to the marketplace.

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