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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10 Responses to “The 27-inch iMac Aftermath: Does Apple Ship Too Early?”

  1. shane blyth says:

    never buy revision 1 they say and there is probably a good reason wait a few months and see if something is ironed out. Thats what they say anyway. Yes seems like it is a good thing to keep in mind

  2. dfs says:

    Yes, there is an “eternal shipping/development conflict.” There’s also an eternal conflict between maintaining corporate secrecy and maintaining reasonable transparancy in dealing with consumers. On the one hand, the legal department will always urge a policy of silence: candor about problems might be interpreted as an admission of liability. If Apple were to admit there is a problem with the 27-in. display, some affected purchasers might sue Apple for down-time and consequent loss of income. Trash suits? Probably, but defending yourself even against litigation completely lacking in merit costs time and money. On the other hand, it is necessary to maintain consumer confidence. One of America’s largest fast-food corporations had an outbreak of food-poisoning incidents a few years ago, that led to the loss of a couple of lives. If it didn’t do a good job of handling the crisis, it could easily have put the corporation out of business. Its senior executives were in a tizz and paralyzed by indecision, their lawyers were recommending they clam up, but a young friend of mine working in their public relations department stepped in and took control of the situation, overruled the lawyers, and insisted the corporation be entirely open about the nature of the problem and what steps were being taken about it. This turned out to be exactly the right decision, and the young man was the hero of the hour (with extremely beneficial results for his subsequent career). As a result of his leadership, the public trust in that food chain was maintained and the corporation is in good shape today. Sometimes I think Apple’s lawyers have too much influence within the organization. This might be a good time for Apple to think less about potential liability and more about consumer confidence, and it might be helpful if they would share with us what they know about the nature and dimensions of the problem and give us some idea what measures they are taking to deal with it. A policy generated by fear is often a bad one, and I get the idea that Apple’s lawyers are a very fearful lot.

  3. Roger Mercer says:

    The problem is one of simple stupidity. Apple, in its rush to please the green eco folks, has made it’s boxes smaller and lighter so there’s less waste for landfills.

    The current boxes are inadequate to protect the very large screens during shipping. Some screens arrive visibly cracked. Others show no damage but do not display content properly.

    The fact is, irrational allegiance to “green” thinking is costing Apple a lot of money.

    • Having actually seen the box in which the 27-inch iMac is shipped, I do not regard it as flimsy. Maybe others will disagree. Have you actually seen them, Roger, and examined the packing materials close up?


      • Roger Mercer says:

        @Gene Steinberg, Haven’t seen the boxes, Gene. I was basing my comments on several people I’ve ordered new Macs from in the business. Most of them say the boxes can flex and the screens can’t. They say the boxes are too small to include adequate packing. So maybe it’s not so much a strength as a size issue.

        Thanks for commenting on having seen the boxes. What do you think? Is there enough room for extra packing to allow the box to flex without stressing the screens?

  4. Patrick says:

    The whole subject of defective 27″ iMacs is overblown and inane. Let’s assume that there have been 1000 iMacs that have arrived DOA or with cracked screens. Since Apple’s desktop shipments are up 71% year-over-year, it’s safe to assume that Apple has shipped at least 500,000 27″ iMacs, so far.

    That adds up to a failure rate of 0.5%.

    Jesus Christ! The sky is falling!

    Get a grip folks. This whole thing is about link baiting and only goes to show that articles about 27″ iMacs are good for clicks. My conclusion: the new iMac is a big hit, otherwise no one would care…

  5. Louis Wheeler says:

    We don’t have accurate data on how wide spread this problem is. Nor what corrective action Apple is taking for this problem.

    There will always be a certain percentage of duds with any product. Shipping a product half way around the world guarantees this. One problem with the Internet is that it can magnify a problem all out of proportion. A very noisy group of first buyers can turn a molehill into a mountain.

    The wrong party can be blamed. If Adobe, who writes their own plugins, ships a flawed Flash plug-in on the Apple installation DVD, then Apple, not Adobe gets the blame.

    There are, also, antiApple pundits who stir up trouble. It took me three minutes to download a corrected Flash plug-in which the anti-Apple pundits were raising a ruckus about. Big deal.

    • @Louis Wheeler, I’m not a packaging design expert, nor do I play one on TV, but the foam seems thick enough to contain the product and allow a reasonable degree of flex. And don’t forget that the complaints about broken screens seem to have mostly occurred very early in the shipping process. These days, they are generally speaking about flickering and green casts, both of which may be due to other factors, perhaps even software interactions of one sort or another.


  6. David says:

    We’ve just gotten a half dozen new iMacs here at work (mostly 27 inch). None had cracked screens.

    The packaging that I’ve seen looks adequate for the job, but shipping companies tend to be very rough. I’ve watched delivery drivers shoving large boxes out of their way and hurling small boxes from one end of their truck to another assuming they’ll withstand the shock.

    I didn’t get any of the new hardware so I haven’t examined the displays for flickering or yellowing in the lower half, but haven’t heard any complaints yet.

    • Richard says:


      You mean the UPS Package Chunkers? The word that comes to mind is violent, as in extremely violent. It would be interesting to know whether Apple drop tests the packaging before accepting it for their products. Although I have named the UPS people as “usual suspects”, the same could happen for a container which was dropped “just a little bit”. I should hope that Apple have traced the shipping of the units which have experienced these problems to determine whether it was a matter of rough handling which exceeded the capabilities of the packaging or just what.

      I am aware of some manufacturers which have investigated the shipping of products to a consumer and, for example, found that the item was positioned over the axle of a truck which drove on a very rough road and the shock loading damaged the product. You probably have seen trailers on the side of a road which had been destroyed by a driver not slowing down enough on a bad stretch of road.

      We will probably never know the true extent of the problem, but I hope that Apple have done a better job of taking care of the purchasers than they have with some problems in the past.

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