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Support is never free, especially on deadline

Eliot Hochberg, August 21, 2001

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Recently, I had a major problem on my Mac, and a minor one on my client’s PC. In each case, the OS support that each respective company gave made me feel like I was dealing with the Mafia. What’s worse is that each problem was caused by the respective company’s own software, and they both charge for the privilege of getting a solution. It’s tantamount to asking for protection money. “If you want to continue to work, you’re going to have pay me to make your computer work again.” (Dub over appropriate Mafioso-type accent.) To a certain extent I expect this kind of thing from Microsoft, but to have it happen on my Mac as well almost made me want to throw the machine out of the window. Combine that with the fact that I was on my first professional DVD authoring deadline, and it was almost too much for me to take.

On a Sawtooth G4/450, which is my main authoring system – my “money computer,” if you will – my problems appear to have been caused when I started updating software. First, I successfully upgraded iMovie to iMovie 2. Next, I tried FireWire 2.7 and a regular software update (but no firmware update!) from Apple. I hadn’t updated or installed anything else.

Somewhere in that process, my FireWire connection stopped working. But I was on a deadline to digitize video to put on a DVD. I needed that FireWire connection! So I went to Apple’s support site for answers. I looked at the knowledge base. I went to the tech notes. Nothing. I even looked on Apple’s message boards, and found that many users were having the exact same problem.

So, out of desperation I called Apple tech support. My Mac is over a year old; it’s out of warranty and free tech support. And I knew it, but since this seemed to be the fault of Apple’s software, I called anyway. While on hold I tried one more trick – I uninstalled and reinstalled CarbonLib 1.3.1, which turned out to solve the problem (I think), but I stayed on the line anyway to tell the support technician so that he could help others, and maybe even put up a tech note.

In the past, I have been able to do this. Well, the technician who answered the call insisted that he had to charge me $50, and explained that I was paying for his time, just as if I had gone to an AppleCare center or had hired my own contractor. The thing is, though, that this was a problem caused by Apple’s software. So apparently Apple can update some software, have it not work, and charge us for the privilege of getting the solution. The technician wasn’t even interested in my solution, which could help other Apple users. I figured it would be a fair trade.

Microsoft does the same thing. A client of mine was having problems with what turned out to be a known bug in an installation of Outlook on the PC. The only way to obtain a solution was to sign up for this screwy telephone support system, where you put information in on their Web page, after which the system calls you back at a designated number. Then someone charges $10 a minute for two minutes to tell you to use RegEdit (the registry editor for Windows) to fix the problem. That kind of information used to be readily available, for free, on Microsoft’s site. (For the record, I attempted to find this service again on Microsoft’s site to find a link, but now it’s gone. I also couldn’t find a reference to the problem anywhere on Microsoft’s site. Hmmm.)

I suppose that this is the software equivalent of built-in obsolescence, but that doesn’t make it right. It’s more like a scam that both Apple and Microsoft have developed to squeeze more money out of users. Many in the Mac community would expect this sort of behavior from Microsoft, and certainly in these more difficult times, any form of revenue is seen as a plus. But this is another reminder (see all of the posturing by Apple over Mac themes) that Apple is indeed just another corporation, and that its “soul” only runs as deep as its pockets.

Eliot Hochberg is a Web developer with over 6 years experience. In addition to struggling with tech support, he is the author of MacEdition’s ongoing feature on DVD authoring.

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