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An Apple Reliability Reality Check

In the wake of a press release from RESCUECOM, a third-party computer repair service, that Apple remains the top-rated company, I have to wonder why so many people perceive Macs and recent Mac OS versions as seriously flawed. Clearly there’s a disconnect, since other surveys, from Consumer Reports and elsewhere, also show superior ratings for Apple’s gear. By the way, a recent BusinessWeek survey listed Apple as third in customer support.

Now in all fairness, RESCUECOM is not an authorized Apple dealer or repair shop, so they tend to get older Macs that are out of warranty. Still, it’s encouraging to know that Macs will continue to be reliable as they age. But despite this, I think you realize that Apple is still getting serious criticisms for bad quality control.

You can probably see that in some of the recent comments made in response to my article about whether Apple should delay Snow Leopard’s successor. One reason given to speed up the next version is reliability, which means that at least some of you have had problems with Snow Leopard.

The shipping delays and apparent quality problems with the 27-inch iMac have also fueled speculation that Apple is somehow falling down on the job and shipping gear that is seriously flawed.

So is there any truth to all this? Has Apple sacrificed its reputation for great product quality in exchange for the almighty dollar?

I don’t think so, and I’ll tell you why. You see, in order to suggest that Apple is releasing products prematurely or not paying attention to making them as defect free as possible, you would have to look over their entire history and see whether the situation has actually changed.

I still recall the legendary Mac IIcx/IIci/Quadra 700 line, which were outfitted with floppy drives that were serious dust magnets. Indeed, the system admin at one of the shops at which I worked was forced to clean out floppy drives on the company’s Macs every few weeks. If the drives weren’t cleaned, they simply stopped working and in those days that fragile media system was mission critical for far too many companies when it came to archiving your stuff, assuming you didn’t use one of those removable SyQuest drives, which weren’t so reliable either.

Through the years, Macs have always been subject to component failures of one sort or another. Power supplies were especially vulnerable. In recent years, Apple has set up extended repair programs for iMacs, and that’s just a single example. Years ago, if there was a special warranty program, you’d seldom hear about it unless the defects were particularly serious or widespread.

Remember the PowerBooks used in the movies “Mission Impossible” and “Independence Day”? They were among the buggiest ever. The cursed PowerBook 500/5300 series was delayed initially because of smoking batteries that were discovered during the prototype stage. Later on, warranty extensions addressed problems with the screen bezels, logic boards and other parts. It was one huge mess, even if those note-books saved the planet in one of the most popular science fiction movies of the 1990s.

When it comes to the Mac OS, the situation is predictable. There is a point-zero version riddled with defects, some of which can cause crashes and/or data loss, and it takes a few maintenance updates for things to settle down.

All through the years, vocal Mac users have complained that Apple is losing its edge, and marketing is rushing headlong into releasing products as quickly as possible, quality be damned!

In all fairness, there’s always an ongoing conflict between product designers and marketing. The development teams struggle to make sure everything is perfect, as the sales people demand something to ship so profits can begin to pour in. Even if something is certified as ready for sale, there will be inevitable bugs that somehow slipped through the quality control process, or couldn’t be confirmed when tested.

Of course, you have such issues in most every business sector involved in mass production. In the auto industry, Toyota has gotten lots of bad press because of those sudden acceleration problems, but every car maker has recalls of one sort or another. They can’t all be fatally flawed.

Let’s return to our corner of the universe: When it comes to the 27-inch iMac, this model has been a surprisingly hot seller, which is perhaps one key reason for the shipping delays, which have only recently been addressed. The flat panel display is also quite new — it’s also incorporated in a Dell product — and thus there are bound to be early production defects. You heard about some units shipping with broken screens, but that might have just been an assembly or packing problem. Some iMac owners reported flickering screens and an apparent yellow discoloration.

Apple released two firmware updates that appear to have fixed the flickering screens, and they are requesting that you visit your Apple dealer if you have other problems. The complaints have certainly diminished in intensity.

As far as I’m concerned, Snow Leopard arrived last August in pretty decent shape. There was one niggling problem, involving switching from a Guest account to a regular user account, which had the potential of destroying the latter. That situation, since rectified, was as dangerous as a Finder bug in the original Leopard release where files moved, rather than copied, to another drive or file share might be corrupted.

None of this convinces me that Apple is building defective products. You have to expect imperfect gear, and there is no indication that Apple is any less concerned about quality control than they ever were. More to the point, if you are not comfortable dealing with potential bugs, don’t rush to be an early adopter of any new product, from any company. Let people like me suffer through the defects instead.