Apple Support: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

Steve Wildstrom / November 7th, 2013

movie poster (IMDB)See update below

Apple is a company that inspires both delight and dismay in its customers, sometimes both in the same person and on the same day.

First the good news. My 27″ iMac had been acting weird since I installed Mavericks. It would occasionally lock up for no reason and then would take forever to reboot.Then it started loading an obscure process at bootup (something to do with mounting an audio CD) and I could watch in the Activity Monitor as it swallowed up all my physical memory. I decided to try reinstalling Mavericks, but it would repeatedly hang during the installation. I couldn’t go forward and I couldn’t go back.

I made an appointment at the local Apple Store, where the tech at the Genius Bar said that if I had a current backup, the simplest solution would be to reformat the hard drive, reload the OS from the store network, then restore from backup.It took less than 30 minutes to complete a clean install, and was free.

Try doing that with any Windows machine. Apple Store service is, without doubt, one of the best reasons for buying an Apple product. If Apple charges a premium for Macs–and that’s a dubious contention on a feature-for-feature basis–the Genius Bar alone is worth it. I’m pretty good at fixing Macs, but it has saved me several times.

Then there’s the bad and ugly: Apple’s total lack of transparency or honesty regarding problems with its software. Mavericks users have reported a range of issues, not terribly surprising for a new OS release, and by far the worst of them seem to involve the Mail application. Gmail users reported that the new application was incapable of handling Gmail folders properly. Whether this was a bug or a feature is not entirely clear–Mac Mail has always had a tenuous relationship with Google’s idiosyncratic approach to the IMAP protocol. But it obviously left a large number of Mac users upset. The official response from Apple: silence.

snell_tweetThere were reports of many other issues. Jason Snell, the editorial director of Macworld was horrified to discover that the entire contents,of his Exchange mailbox had simply vanished. I found that Mail was no longer appended a signature to my outgoing messages on one of the two Macs I have updated. When I tried to fix the problem, the program would not let me choose any of the signatures it knew existed.

A search of Apple support forums showed I was far from alone. But if Apple monitors its own forums, it doesn’t bother to respond. I tried a couple of the workarounds other users suggested, but so far no happiness.

Microsoft may not be willing or able to help you with a malfunctioning PC, but it is a lot more forthright about bugs. Serious issues get acknowledged in the Microsoft Knowledge Base, along with word on fixes and, if necessary, workarounds. In particular, Microsoft is far more forthcoming about security issues. (Apple typically issues security patches once a month without detailing what has been fixed; Microsoft issues patches on a similar schedule, but publishes a detailed list of what issues are addressed.)

Apple Insider reports that Apple has begun letting developers test a new version of Mail.app that addresses problems whose existence it has not yet acknowledged. Hopefully, it will show up someday soon as OS X 10.9.1 with little or no explanation. And maybe it will fix the Gmail problem and maybe it won’t.

It’s amazing that a company that is so good at delighting customers at the Genius Bar can be so pigheaded about helping users with the sorts of software problems that plague every major new release. A simple acknowledgement of “we know about it and we are working on it” would go a long way toward assuaging frustrated users. But that’s not the Apple way.

UPDATE

About the time I was posting this, Apple began pushing out an update to Mavericks Mail. As usual, Apple did it without announcement (other than this terse bulletin posted at Apple support) and this update notification (if you are subscribed to auto updates):

mavericks-mail-update

Preliminary reports suggest it addresses most Gmail issues. It does not fix the signature problem I encountered.

While I salute Apple for addressing the Gmail problem promptly, I continue to be puzzled by the company’s insistence on being so damn mysterious about such things.

 

Steve Wildstrom

Steve Wildstrom is veteran technology reporter, writer, and analyst based in the Washington, D.C. area. He created and wrote BusinessWeek’s Technology & You column for 15 years. Since leaving BusinessWeek in the fall of 2009, he has written his own blog, Wildstrom on Tech and has contributed to corporate blogs, including those of Cisco and AMD and also consults for major technology companies.
  • unhinged

    John Gruber of Daring Fireball has it right, I think. Apple waits until they have a solution worked out before making a public comment on any issue.
    .
    Yes, it’s frustrating. No, they won’t change it.
    .
    I think at some level Apple believes it deserves some trust from it’s customers.

    • steve_wildstrom

      Transparency makes trust easier.

      • Herding_sheep

        I think Apples been making some reasonable progress on this since the loss of Steve Jobs. The old Jobs culture of silence until absolutely necessary is still lingering, but I’d say Cook has been steering the company more and more transparent. They’re certainly much more willing to listen, rather than the old Jobs way of saying “you’re doing it wrong.” The response to the iWork outcry is a perfect example. A few years ago I don’t think we’d have ever seen Apple respond to something like that, much less with an actual roadmap of WHEN and WHAT they were planning to add to the product.

        • steve_wildstrom

          A fair point. The problems of Mavericks Mail are not small bus. They have responded to the Gmail problem and I’m sure they will to others, but they do seem to like messing with our heads first.

          • Ben Klaiber

            Messing with our heads? By fixing an issue that the supposedly ‘open’ kingdom of Google creates by using proprietary extensions to something as basic as IMAP protocols?

            If memory serves, I remember the media uproar over Apple extending epub to support media extensions in iBooks Author epubs.

      • Space Gorilla

        I would argue that providing me with an excellent customer experience since 1984 makes trust pretty darn easy. Apple has earned my trust. Transparency is just so much corporate BS. I judge by actions, not words.

    • FalKirk

      On this one, I think Gruber’s got it wrong. Getting it right is the way an engineer approaches a problem. Making one’s customers feel appreciated is part of PR or marketing.

      We’re human beings, not machines. The quirks of human psychology must be taken into account. A word here or there can make a wait seem infinitely shorter even if the wait is actually no shorter at all.

      • klahanas

        The last time Gruber was wrong was when he thought he made a mistake! 😉

    • Mechanic40

      You are exactly right they don’t reply unless there is a complete investigation and a solution.

      A quote from Apples security sight:

      “For the protection of our customers, Apple does not disclose, discuss, or confirm security issues until a full investigation has occurred and any necessary patches or releases are available. To learn more about Apple Product Security, see the Apple Product Security website.”

      That is there policy as stated by them on there security site.
      Also listed on that site are extreme details of every security patch they have done. What the issue was and what there fix for it was.

  • DeadParrot

    1. Apple has security notes for all releases details what has changed. The master note is http://support.apple.com/kb/HT1222 . For instance, for the Mac OS 10.8.2, see http://support.apple.com/kb/HT5501. It details the issues fixed with open source packages (Apache, BIND, PHP, etc.) and Apple software (CoreText, DirectoryService, etc.) with industry standard CVE-ID’s detailing the exact security issue fixed.

    2. Apple’s fix for Google Mail was released several hours before your article. http://support.apple.com/kb/DL1703 Reports on the net says it fixes many (if not all) problems.

    • steve_wildstrom

      I have posted an update taking not of Apple’s action. I must say that even now, Apple is not terribly forthcoming about just what they fixed.

      Apple is decent on security notifications. On other bugs, not so much.

      • DeadParrot

        You said in the article
        “Apple typically issues security patches once a month without detailing what has been fixed”

        yet your replay says “Apple is decent on security notifications”

        So does Apple release security patches with zero information on what has been fixed or not?

        • steve_wildstrom

          I misspoke (miswrote?) in the original and them contradicted myself. The work “security” should not habve been in the original patch. Apple is OK on security fixes, but very vague about anything else.

          • DeadParrot

            You should rewrite or remove the entire 2 sentences, not just omit the word security. The full sentence is

            “In particular, Microsoft is far more forthcoming about security issues. (Apple typically issues security patches once a month without detailing what has been fixed; Microsoft issues patches on a similar schedule, but publishes a detailed list of what issues are addressed.)”

            Which is entirely about security, and not general patches (since Microsoft releases security patches but not general patches on a regular monthly schedule.

          • steve_wildstrom

            I’ll stand by my statement regarding Microsoft’s superior overall approach to security. For example, Microsoft regularly announces in advance what vulnerabilities it will be patching in its regular monthly releases and also gives details in advance on urgent out-of-cycle patches. Apple does neither and, in general, its approach to security disclosure remains grudging.

          • Ben Klaiber

            Superior approach? Open telegraphs to hackers about which areas to stop targeting, and which are still unaddressed hardly sounds intelligent, let alone superior.

          • Ben Klaiber

            Your ‘update’ manages to vaguely insinuate further troubles await any unwary user of Apple mail.. “suggest it addresses most Gmail issues. It does not fix the signature problem I encountered.”

            So, when Google or Microsoft engineers post a fix for a problem, it gets reported as “Engineers post fix for xyz”. When Apple engineers post a fix for a problem, we get “reports suggest it addresses (note we lose the word fix) ‘MOST’ issues (if there remains one issue, it would fairly say ‘all but one’).

          • steve_wildstrom

            Apple has by no means fixed all the problems of Mavericks Mail.app. I still can;t get it to append a signature, and Apple still has not responded in the support forums.

  • klahanas

    I’ve had both stellar and absolutely dismal experiences at the “Genius Bar”. Here I’ll discuss the latter, because the former was them doing their job. Amazing how computers have numbed our sensibilities over what we’re willing to put up with…

    1) I had a one year old 15′ 2008 MBP which I gave to my daughter. I loved that computer. I went to the store and bought the 2009 model. Both computers were well over $2000 each. Upon setting up, I was looking for the Expresscard slot. It was gone! Disappointed, I went back to the Apple Store the very next day to exchange it for the 17′ model, which I really didn’t want, but conserved the Expresscard feature. I was politely told that I could exchange the computer, but that there would be a 15% restocking fee (over $300). Despite it being the next day, they modified the model, etc. They held firm.
    Moral of the story…Apple did eventually abolish the restocking fee, and MBP users were stuck with USB2 or Firewire for a few years.

    2) I did a firmware update on a then 1 year old iPhone 3GS. The phone was kept in a case since purchase, and was completely unmodified. As often happens in computerdom, the upgrade didn’t take, and the phone would very randomly and very frequently reboot. Time for an appointment…
    Once at the Genius Bar, the very first thing the tech (and his colleague, and his boss) did was shine a light on the exposed moisture sensors, claim the phone had suffered “water damage” and gave me no recourse. Now, this was a phone I had just handed down to my daughter. I pulled out my brand new 3GS and asked if “it” had water damage. Lo and behold! It did! Never mind that it worked perfectly, it was “water damaged”. I said the sensors are exposed and ambient humidity could set them off. They told me it was impossible. I suggested they open up the phone and look at the internal unexposed sensors, they refused. Basically, I was [a word that will trigger a filter]. They did offer me a used iPhone for $200 (+2 years) and I would have to give them the damaged one. I told them in no uncertain terms to “go forth and multiply themselves” and left. Once home I jailbroke the phone, the only time I’ve ever done it, and voila, the jailbreak fixed it. That phone worked for two more years until my son went into the ocean with the phone in his pocket. It was in the cards…
    Moral of the story… After being found culpable in the sensor case (i.e.- lying) Apple settled to the tune of $53 million. I files my claim and I’m waiting (forever) for my $200 check, that I will promptly use towards a competitive product.

    There was one more, but less egregious, and this post is already too long.

  • Ben Klaiber

    Steve,

    It’s amazing that you managed to write this entirely without mentioning that the fault lies with Google. Gmail uses proprietary iMAP extensions, which Apple must constantly adjust to support.

    http://kde.6490.n7.nabble.com/Gmail-IMAP-extensions-td1054171.html

    In fact, as others have written, “Gmail is a highly proprietary, constantly changing, email-like product. It is not standard IMAP email, and it will never work flawlessly in standard IMAP clients. (It never has.) Google has always supported IMAP reluctantly and poorly, and that won’t change — in fact, it wouldn’t surprise me if they removed IMAP support in the next few years.” – http://www.marco.org/2013/11/04/mavericks-gmail

    Why exactly is the headline not about Google refusing to use standard, industry wide, IMAP?
    This has nothing to do with Apple’s support levels, or transparency, if you’re unbiased.

    • steve_wildstrom

      I don’t think Google should be messing unilaterally with a standard like IMAP (lousy and out-of-date though it may be.) But Gmail is used by millions of Mac owners. Apple supported the way Google did things in Mountain Lion, and then in Mavericks they didn’t. Google did not change anything.

      • Ben Klaiber

        “It is not standard IMAP email, and it will never work flawlessly in standard IMAP clients. (It never has.)” – That doesn’t sound whatsoever like “Apple supported the way Google”.. It sounds much more like, ‘a flawed, but somewhat functional method of handling Gmail was in place’.

        The article clearly references and explains that Gmail’s protocol HAS changed, repeatedly and frequently. So, yes, Google changed things. We went through this years ago with Hotmail, when Apple Mail only had a third-party plugin to access Hotmail accounts. Microsoft would make frequent changes, and they broke the third-party plugin. Microsoft eventually stopped it, as did Yahoo and AOL. However, Google doesn’t care about really being ‘open’, they simply want to repeat the phrase to their legions of believers, while their actual actions are all about control and conquering.

        The recent moves to refuse to include Chrome in Android, unless you license the entire G-suite with it (Gmail, Hangouts, Calendar, etc), is the just more of the same velvet mafia actions. Lucky for Google, they have an extremely naive media punditry at hand. One that will play along with Google’s charade at any opportunity, while blaming the companies suffering their ‘openness’.

        It recalls Bill Gates’ proclamation to IBM that, “NeXT isn’t compatible with anything!!” In reality, it was compatible with an entire world of applications and had emulators for MAC OS, Windows, DOS, and more. What ‘compatible’ meant to Gates meant was ‘compatible..with Windows OS, Windows Software, Windows format, Windows everything’.

        Google means ‘open’ to using Google Mail, Google Calendar, Google+, Google Hangouts, Google contacts, Google maps, Google searches, Google store. That’s not ‘open’, that’s a mafia racket that owns every piece of a user’s life.

        I can only imagine the outcry at the top of the pundit’s lungs if Apple only supported Apple mail, Apple search, Apple maps, Apple contacts, Apple social network, Apple everything. Apple instead fully integrates mail, contacts, social networks for Linkedin, twitter, Vine, AOL, Facebook, Hotmail, Yahoo, and many many more. How ‘closed’ that is. /s

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