Saturday, August 15, 2009

Apple Care

For sometime now, as most of my friends are aware, I have moved to Apple. My desktop is an Apple iMac, my laptop is a MacBook, my iPod is the Touch, and my car is also (well, ok, no, just getting carried away - it does have an Apple logo though :) ). I have never regretted this shift from Linux because it has given me all the functionalities of Linux, as well as the added luxury of being able to find drivers for peripherals, organise my music and photos (iTunes and iPhoto) and generally a smoother, hacking-free driving experience within the familiar Unix environment. (and with no viruses unlike Windows).

Recently however, my desktop developed a curious problem - I kept getting an error message about a USB port drawing too much current, even though all my ports worked fine. Normally in my earlier avatar, I would have called the local vendor who supplies us the CPU boxes (on which we install Linux or occasionally Windows) and asked him to figure out what was wrong under pain of being blacklisted for ever if he didn't! With Apple, life, I discovered, is different! Apple vendors and service centres do not attend to problems unless their mother ship (i.e the Apple call centre) instructs them to. So, hating the thought of interacting with a call centre, I called Apple Care (that's 1-800-425-0744 if anyone is interested). After the usual mandatory wait of a few minutes during which I was assured numerous times that my call was important for them, I got a human with an American accent. Even though the call centre is in India, Apple still feels the need to employ people who are trained to speak with a fake American accent. The human took me through a procedure to flush the PRAM (boot using Command-Option-P-R) which I did and which seemed to solve the problem.

Unfortunately it did not last. The problem recurred in a couple of days and I had to call the call centre again. Fortunately Apple keeps a full record of each case, so even though I got a fresh new human with a fresh new fake accent (this gentleman had enormous trouble keeping up the accent - I really felt for him and wanted to tell him to let go - I wouldn't think poorly of him, at least not on that count!) who, after consulting a faceless product engineer, declared that I had to do a) a Hardware Test (1 hour) and b) an Archive-Install which essentially boils down to reinstalling the O/S from the original DVD though it preserves the working environment (1 1/2 hours).

Having spent the better part of two hours on this, I found that the problem had not gone away and I was already dreading the next step. This, as I found out on my next call and next conversation with another American accented man, was to do an Erase-Install (you see I had already peeked at the appropriate 'Support' section of the manual). This, as you will have guessed, actually erases everything and re-installs the bare O/S - it other words you are returned to the factory-level defaults. Not a pleasant thought, when you think of all the work you would have to do to set up the system again including accounts, files, environment etc.

Mercifully, I have been using 'Time Machine' ever since I had Leopard and everything I read on the net indicated that Time Machine would restore the system to the state I had just before the 'Erase-Install' and what's more, do it automatically.

And that's exactly how it happened - after cleaning up the machine, and booting with the newly installed pristine version of the O/S it asked me whether I wanted to restore my files from Time Machine (which was an external hard disk which it detected while booting), and it did precisely that. It took a long time (I have no idea how long - I went home and came back the next day but probably something like 3 hours or more) but the machine seems back precisely at the point at which I killed it by erasing it's life-force :) .

So here is what I would tell those who want to use a Mac. You won't regret it -- however be warned that if anytime something goes wrong, you will have to fix it yourself, following instructions from the call centre (and they appear quite reliable though completely mechanical - any question out of the ordinary, like asking which directories would be affected foxes them completely - I don't think they even know what a directory is). Of course this is the system which is followed in the US and most other Western countries, but in India we are used to calling our friendly neighbourhood service centre and hand over the problem to them. This will not happen here, unless the system has totally died or is inoperable and actually needs opening up. You are expected to do things yourself, which other than the time involved is hardly a bad thing - it allows you to get to know your machine better!

As of now, the problem has vanished. However, I have been (finally!) promised a visit by a service engineer next week if the problem recurs.


Rahul Siddharthan said...

Linux is for those who like to tweak their systems endlessly and are not afraid of the command line. Mac, I thought is for those who don't even want to replace a battery on their own. (So your experience surprises me -- if they trust you to do all those reflashing/reinstalling manoeuvres, why don't they trust you to replace your own battery?) Windows is for masochists, for those who are forced to use it by their jobs, and for those who don't know better...

Rahul Basu said...

I think your descriptions are stereotypes and therefore not appropriate. I use the command line quite a bit on the Mac, though I must say the one-click option (Amazon option?) is very useful sometimes and a great time saver. There are also perfectly reasonable Windows users including one of our colleagues who uses Windows quite effectively and efficiently and can do everything that we need to do in our work environment (and doesn't send out viruses and spam).

The ease of use of the Windows interface is one of the reasons for the widespread use of computers - from farmers using e-choupal, to housewives and grandparents who just want to browse and email and don't need command line options.

I think one should not mechanically run down Windows users. It's fashionable amongst academics particularly Linux users, and of course it's not helped by some of Windows' more clunky aspects and Microsoft's dodgy business practices. It's only after Linux flavours like RedHat, Fedora, Ubuntu made the desktop interface user-friendly (read Windows-like) that Linux started making inroads into the Windows market.

About the battery - the MacBook and the MacBook Pro allow you to change the battery. As far as I know only the Air needs to be factory fitted.
So again, not allowing you to change the battery is one of those 'urban myths' .

Rahul Siddharthan said...

I wasn't trying to be so serious. But to clarify: By "not afraid of the command line" I meant the command line is pretty much required, even on the latest and shiniest Ubuntu, now and then. On the other hand, it can be a lifesaver when you are not inclined to do the Windows (or Mac, by your description?) "reinstall" option. Dare I guess that if your install of Linux had had a similar problem and you had complained on an appropriate forum, you would have got a fix that did not require this "restore to factory defaults" stuff? Or that, if Apple had actually made use of the fact that the underlying OS to Mac OS X (Darwin) is open source, and if they knew that you were a technically competent user, they could themselves have suggested a more "targeted" fix to you?

About Windows and our colleague: I think the exception proves the rule. And I don't agree that people go to Windows for user-friendliness. They go out of habit and because everyone else does. (Again, this doesn't necessarily apply to our colleague.) They were using MS-DOS for years after Apple introduced the Macintosh, and the Mac has always been far ahead of Windows in that respect, except perhaps briefly when the "old" Mac OS was showing its age and Mac OS X wasn't released (and, importantly, Jobs was out).

Rahul Siddharthan said...

ps - about the battery comment, I also had in mind the iPhone, but of course that is not a Mac.

AmOK said...

Well I go to Windows for User friendliness. Most things I can accomplish by clicking "Yes", "No", or "Cancel". All my fellow-users become friendly when they get Office documents and unfriendly when they get PDF files or .tex files. Windows has made a huge difference in the way we work and do things. Business dealings run on Office. By the way the trouble-shooting you encountered, OLO, is an example of the emergence of the the Cyborg method. The human is actually not a human -- but a cyborg, a type of User Interface. Input to the cyborg is the trouble-shooting manual data and your responses. Output from the cyborg is the next set of instructions. This goes on until convergence to a solution: human goes away for a while or forks out more money. The cyborg on the phone does not, as such, possess any intelligence in the human sense of the word. It is all about cost reduction, standardization and -- solving most of the simpler problems. I have encountered this with HP also -- at the end they said my printer has a hardware problem and they could sell me a new one. Conflict of interest, I say.

Rahul Basu said...

Rahul S: You would be surprised how many things on the Mac work only with command line. For example all the preference settings of 'Finder' which are slightly non-standard only work through the command line and many of them are really useful. (Of course you wonder at the kind of people who use Macs - the instructions usually tell you -- 'do not forget to hit 'Enter' after typing the above command' !) There are numerous other examples.

About fixing bugs without re-installing. Again, with the kind of support available on the net, most of the time a simple command-line fix is enough. Mine seemed to be unique and also somewhat new - so a work-around hadn't been found yet. There were various complaints but no solutions yet.

Of course the call centre people just work on the basis of a cog sheet which are probably generic
in their solutions. 'If this, do that' so they don't address specific problems really. (the 'cyborg' in AmoK's comment). In fact I asked the guy at the centre if his instruction sheet specifically mentioned this kind of problem and he said no, it had never happened and was surprised that it was there on the net if he just searched Google. So obviously he was programmed to give generic advice. (I don't think they even know Unix too well - they kept telling me to save my home area (which in Mac is under /Users/rahul). I asked about the Applications area which is under /Applications. He claimed it would automatically get saved when I saved the home area! Then when I insisted, he consulted a 'Service Specialist' who clarified that (obviously) 'home area' did not include anything under / .

So I guess it's a case of how mass market you want your product to be. Of course mass market also means that solutions can often be found on the net and that is happening with the Apple set of computers now. As I said, most problems in the last 2 years I have handled by using Google. This was the exception.