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Wanted: Apple 24-hour professional video technical support

by Eliot Hochberg, May 30, 2003

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Readers of my opinion articles are, by now, used to my complaints about various aspects of Apple’s customer service and pricing policies. Usually, these articles are prompted by anecdotes of difficulties in using an Apple product or service. Yes, Virginia, this is another one of those opinion articles.

I am currently working on a four-disc DVD project. Hooray for me and all that. It turns out that for the last few months, I haven’t had to do a project that required frame-accurate chapters. In fact, I don’t think I ever had to do that. So, I am surprised during the course of making one of my discs on this project, which needs frame-accurate markers, to find that I couldn’t do them in DVDSP. Now, in the back of my mind, I know that I should know something about this. I just can’t remember what the reason for the problem is. It’s 4 p.m. Pacific Time.

So, onto the Internet.

I do some searches in Google, then go onto Apple’s support knowledge base and discussion boards. The answer apparently isn’t a frequently asked question, so I have to search and sift. A couple hours later, I find the answer I need. The only way to get frame-accurate chapter markers in DVDSP is to set them in Final Cut Pro 3 first. Now, before you think I’m going to yell about this, it actually makes sense, unfortunately. Chapter markers depend on there being I-Frames in the MPEG-2 footage. I-Frames are used to indicate the encoding level of a bit of footage. If there is an I-Frame at a particular location, you can put a chapter marker there. Apple apparently defaults to putting these about every 15 frames or so in active footage. Ironically, it seems as though black footage (footage that has nothing in it) typically does not have an I-Frame in it, because the encoding settings are set at the beginning of the black area, and aren’t needed until new footage comes up. This is ironic, because, by and large, you would want to be able to put a chapter marker right in the middle of a blacked-out area, wouldn’t you? Just a thought. And I do believe that there should be a way to put in these frame-accurate markers with QuickTime Pro. To require another $1000 purchase for the function seems excessive. But, many DVDSP users will get FCP anyway, so I won’t press the issue.

Having found the answer to why, I now re-encode my video with chapter markers. It’s now 6 p.m. Pacific Time.

After about an hour of waiting, the footage is encoded. It’s a long bit of footage. I go to import the footage into DVDSP ... and find that there are no chapter markers! I remember that when I got FCP 3, I had this problem, but didn’t follow up on it because I didn’t need frame accuracy, I just wanted it, so had moved on, hoping to find the solution later. Okay, well, now it’s “later” and I need to find the answer. Once again, out onto the Internet. It’s about 7:15 p.m. Pacific Time.

I follow the same procedure, looking for the answer out on the Internet, then in Apple’s support section. After some digging, first through the knowledge base, then through hundreds of search results, I finally find out why I’m having this trouble; chapter markers don’t export from FCP 3 due to a glitch. The glitch needs patching by a Version 3.0.4 updater. So be it. I download the updater. It is now 9:30 p.m. Pacific Time.

I attempt to install the updater. It asks me to insert my original FCP 3 install disc. Now I have a problem. Unfortunately, all of my FCP install discs (v1, 2 and 3) were stolen. As an added bonus, Apple’s license does not allow you to make a backup copy of your FCP 3 disc. This is fortified by measures that make it so that any copy of your FCP disc that you make on a Mac won’t function. You can, I found out, make an install disc copy with a PC program, but that’s not the point. Apple is trying to keep you from doing it, and thus expects that if you’ve lost an install disc, you will have to get a new one. I go back on the Internet to see how to get one.

After about 30 minutes, I find nothing on Apple’s site that has instructions on how to obtain replacement discs. Knowing that AppleCare would be closed (it closes at 6 p.m. Pacific Time), I tried the Apple Store by telephone, hoping the staff could just sell me the replacement disc. They couldn’t, and told me I would have to talk with AppleCare.

At this point, I am very frustrated. I have a problem with no solution. I am on a deadline, and there is no one to call and discuss this with until the next day. It is now 11:30 p.m. Pacific Time. I decide to get as much done as I can around that issue.

Next day comes around, and I call Apple first thing. It turns out that Final Cut Pro issues are handled by a special group in Apple, because regular AppleCare is for hardware only. It would be nice if there were an option for software on the list, so I wouldn’t have to bug the nice hardware technician. But I digress. I spoke with a rep who was very polite and patient.

She helped me purchase the $80 disc. It’s worth noting that the soonest you can get this disc is three business days. That’s because it take two days to process. So if it were an emergency, you’d be SOL.

The rep also begrudgingly affirmed that I could use an associate’s FCP 3 install disc, so long as I used my serial number. Good to know. She also advised me that if I get FCP 4, I would not need anything other than the previous version’s serial number to install at any time. That’s great news, as I really don’t want to have to worry about the whole process again later.

So here’s my point: Yes, it’s great to have online information available, 24 hours a day. Yes, it’s great that Apple makes these groovy products, and does its best to make them pretty and easy to use. And, yes, nobody’s perfect. But Apple is now getting into the business of professional video. And as anyone in the industry knows, pro video is a 24-hours-a-day job. If something doesn’t work, it needs to be fixed right away. Avid appears to have 24-hour customer support. Media 100 definitely has 24-hour support. Apple does better than Adobe; Adobe’s support is 6 a.m. to 5 p.m., seven days a week.

Some may argue that those other companies charge more for their products, and charge for customer support. While it’s true that Avid and Media 100 systems may cost a bit more, it’s not a great deal more. You can get approximate equivalents to FCP from Avid or Media 100 for under $2000. Not the full systems, mind you, but software, like FCP, that edits DV footage on desktop computers. (You have to get your own system.) As far as I can see, those Avid and Media 100 products get 24-hour customer support. But it’s true they do charge for ’round-the-clock customer support. Apple should do that too.

Now, since I just needed to order replacement discs for this issue, I’m happy that Apple didn’t charge for the privilege of talking with a support rep. And I know that outside of the 90-day free period, Apple charges for the customer support it currently provides. That’s a whole other issue. But when you are working in a professional environment, where at 11 p.m. people want answers and solutions, not excuses, video professionals need Apple to be there, even if it’s for a fee. Apple, are you listening? People can get fired when your software doesn’t work properly. They can’t afford the four hours or more noodling around on your somewhat inefficient Web site trying to find answers to bugs in Apple software. And I consider myself a pretty resourceful searcher. What of less adept folks? Your professional users need to know that when they’re in need, they can pay you to be there to answer questions about problems in your software, and that you’ll walk them through the solutions, if necessary.

Of course, I’d like it if that service were free, but I’m not insane. I understand that there are cost issues involved. I just want people to say, “Using Mac software is a great way to keep your job.” If Apple provides some form of 24-hours-a-day service for professional video people along the lines of, say, its X-Serve support, they will.

[Editor’s note: Since publication of this article it has been brought to our attention that Apple does provide a 12hr video support service for $799 and a 24hr support service (168 K pdf) for $2799. We apologise for any confusion.]

Eliot Hochberg (nhws@high-mountain.com) is a Web developer with over seven years’ experience.

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