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What the Muses Deign: Metatarsal distress

by Porruka,, April 13, 2001

Typically, a company (in the US, anyway) survives and thrives by listening to its customers, providing them with a product or service, and, as the customer needs change, cycling through the whole process again. Some companies do this really well, like the retailer Nordstrom, who could basically sell an ice maker to an Inuit. Other companies – well, sometimes you have to wonder why people keep going back. Apple is one of those companies.

Keep your feet in the sights and keep reaching for the trigger

Not many companies could treat their customers like so many sheep and still be in business. Microsoft does it. Intuit does it. Apple, though, seems unique in its position. Does Apple have a dominant place in the market? Not any more. Does Apple hold special attraction in particular markets? Yes, but that's fading fast (maybe there are a few more toes lost than Apple lets on?). From incidents like specifying monitor sizes to lifetime warranties that weren't to eternal Powerbook repairs, Apple has had its share of run-ins with its customers. For some reason, though, people keep coming back. And Apple never seems to learn.

The benefit of being right

There’s a small secret that mainframe and minicomputer owners have known for years. The trick to increased stability (aside from protected memory, etc.) is to know the state of your hardware at all times. Disk drives automatically repair bad blocks (without the OS even knowing about it, at times). CPUs are monitored for temperature and other factors and can be eliminated from a multi-CPU machine to be replaced at a more convenient time. Whole systems can be clustered together to provide high availability in the event of failure in some subsystem. Memory is constantly checked for errors and segments are blocked out to prevent corruption. Generally, these sorts of features are overkill for the home and SOHO user because they cost performance and money. However, Apple recently decided that bad memory is to blame for some of the general instability in Mac OS-based machines, and sent out a firmware update to test for these “faulty” parts and prevent the associated crashes.

In addition to improving the guts of the Mac OS to avoid crashes, hardware is being scrutinized too. Why isn't anyone very happy about this?

Operation: Snub-nosed Instep

How many toes does Apple have on its corporate feet, anyway? Whatever the number, it has to be less than it was before this firmware fiasco. As soon as people started applying the update, howls of distress arose. Memory, whole great gobs of it, 128MB and 256MB at a time, started disappearing from systems. And Apple said nothing.

Enterprising individuals dove into the problem. Some memory seemed fine, some did not. Investigation. Guesswork. Probing. Answer: the memory appeared to be all third-party memory and appeared to be out of spec relative to the Apple-supplied memory. Apple said nothing.

Memory vendors and manufacturers got involved, to prevent a riot in their customer base. What's going on? Is there a problem? What about the warranty? Finally, Apple spoke up, after multiple days. “Oh, that. Yeah, we're testing the memory and locking it out if it’s ‘faulty’.”

It took them several days to figure out that yes, this was intentional? BAM! BAM! Off go the toes!

Thanks for the memories

Many Apple customers are understandably upset that memory they have installed in their machines no longer “functions” (the memory will still work on a machine that has not been upgraded). They are venting their anger at Apple. Apple says, “Talk to your vendor.” Many vendors are currently working with these customers to arrange replacements. Some are not, leaving people angry, upset and RAM-depleted on this dawn of the memory-intensive Mac OS X.

Do these people feel cheated? Yes. Do they blame Apple? Most of them probably do. And they should, but not likely for the reasons they do. If Apple can identify a hardware issue that significantly reduces the stability of its gear and fix it in the field, they should. That may mean some pain and suffering for Apple customers who go aftermarket for add-ons to their machine. Also, in reality, this is as it should be. Apple cannot police every company that purports to sell something that will work on a Macintosh. As with every product purchase, the customer must bear some of the responsibility for choosing a reputable vendor and for following up when something’s amiss.

Bandaging the stumps

Apple, though, is not without fault here. Nowhere close. For whatever reason, Apple deliberately did not warn users about the side effects of applying this update. Apple, for whatever reason, delayed disclosing these effects, even after the situation became known. Apple has taken an arrogant attitude toward the whole situation, completely sidestepping any possibility that the right thing to do would be to give full disclosure on this issue.

Instead, other people have ferreted out Apple's memory specs. They have written utilities to alert to the presence of RAM that would get disabled. They have written utilities that rewrite information in the RAM chips themselves to gain acceptance under the new firmware (which you should perform at your own risk, in our opinion). If it really was that easy (relatively speaking), why couldn’t Apple do something similar? Why couldn’t Apple test the memory itself, and provide a warning to the user that there is out-of-spec memory in the machine?

There are lots of possible reasons, but the bottom line is that Apple ignored a golden opportunity. They could have gained a copious amount of good ink for proactively helping Macintosh owners improve their machines’ stability and usability by announcing this change and preventing users from unknowingly disabling their machines. Instead, there are disgruntled people complaining (once again) about how Apple screwed them, complete with the now-common rumble of “class-action”.

Apple, what happened to the Mac OS we all know and love, where “forgiveness” is an essential part of the user experience, where it is important to remember to “Always warn people before they initiate a task that will cause irretrievable data loss”? If people cares that much about their data, why would they care any less about their hardware?

[UPDATE: Since this piece was written, Gene Steinberg of The Mac Night Owl has reported (April 6) that Apple has indeed added a check for the suspect hardware. Bravo to Apple. That wasn’t that hard, now was it? So, what else does the firmware update do?]

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