Support letdowns tarnish Apple's sterling quality

By building better products, Apple creates higher user expectations for addressing issues when they arise

A petition has been circulating for nine months demanding that Apple fix what seems to be a defect in its 2011 MacBook Pros. As the 10,000 folks who've signed the petition know, these laptops have an unusual failure of the graphics processor unit, which causes the Mac to stop working. The usual fix is a $300 motherboard replacement -- paid for by the user. Shouldn't Apple own up and recall them, or at least cover failed units at no charge?

My sad tale about failing MacBook Pro GPUs
But in usual Apple fashion, the company has said nothing. My own MacBook Pro failed last September due to this glitch, and I paid the $300 plus tax to fix it, as my warranty had expired 18 months earlier. Luck of the draw, I figured, not knowing I might be caught up in a wider phenomenon.

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The Apple Store service was great, as usual. No surprise: Consumer Reports' buyer surveys show no manufacturer gets anywhere close to Apple in terms of customer satisfaction for after-sales support. Apple is simply the best for support.

However, that replacement motherboard's GPU failed seven months later, four months after its warranty expired. This time, the Apple Store replaced it at no charge, though it never acknowledged the issue might be a known one. I was also told the free fix was not something I could count on in the future; it was at the store's discretion this time because such a quick failure was unusual.

Apple also replaced my MacBook Pro's LCD screen at no charge because a tech in the Texas facility that fixes older MacBooks noticed some dead pixels -- ones I never caught -- when he tested the MacBook after replacing the motherboard. I was happy that Apple was so proactive in making the repair, free of charge. But I'm not happy that my graphics processor failure should've been handled by Apple gratis the first time -- and done so openly.

To be sure, you don't see PC makers act any different; the only recalls you see involve safety issues where federal consumer-protection law kicks in, typically around battery and power cord fires. But the MacBook Pro is a premium product from a premium company.

As is typical, Apple did not respond to InfoWorld's request for its policy on how it handles out-of-warranty products with unusual failure rates, nor for comment on this specific issue, even privately. Secrecy and silence are how Apple operates.

The real issue: A pattern of not saying what's really going on
The MacBook Pro issue is hardly the first occurrence of unusual defects that affect many people yet go unacknowledged by Apple. The battery-charging circuitry in 2008 MacBooks seems to have a flaw that kills the battery's ability to hold a charge after only a year; luckily the battery is removable and can be easily replaced. Not so lucky were owners of 2006 iMacs, whose LCD screens seemed to have atypical defect rates -- requiring expensive CD screen replacements on the user's dime.

In both cases, I say "seem" because I don't know if there's actually a defect that Apple has publicly ignored, or if the issues are the usual percentage of failures any technology product has, with the disproportionate attention paid due to the more-demanding expectations of Mac buyers. With no information from Apple, there's no way to know.

We all remember 2010's iPhone 4 antenna issue, where the device's design meant that a conventional way a user might hold it would affect the radio's ability to receive and send signals. It was one of those design defects that didn't become apparent until real-world use, but we all remember CEO Steve Jobs' famous retort: "Just avoid holding it in that way."

The company eventually offered free bumper cases to keep users' fingers away from the radio, but we all got a very public look at how Apple won't come clean if it doesn't have to. We see the same phenomenon for operating system updates: Issues are unacknowledged until they are fixed, if they are fixed. I get that for security issues -- why publicize a vulnerability users can do nothing about until it's resolved? -- but not for other matters.

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