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Upgrades and Macs
Revenue at the expense of customers?

By:David K. Every
©Copyright 1999

Apple is a company -- and as such they are looking out for their (and their stockholders) best interests -- or supposed to be. As an owner of some Apple stock, and as a customer, I think I can be fairly balanced at understanding those two different goals -- and I'm willing to offer my opinions on Apple's moves. Overall I am very pleased with Macs and Apple's moves. I'm still a satisfied customer, and a happy stock-holder. But Apple is doing some less than great things of late (as they have in the past). So even though the balance is positive, I would be remiss if I didn't point out the negatives once in a while as well.

G4 Roadblock

Apple intentionally disabled G4 upgrades. No, it was not an accident. No, it was not nice. Their PR backpedaling and spin isn't going to change that -- and only pisses me off more. They went out of their way in the boot-ROM to look for a model of processor, and then stop the boot-process with an error (death-chimes). They say they didn't promise that G3's were upgradable (like that is an excuse) -- but they didn't say they were going to be intentionally crippled either. This didn't exist in previous versions of the firmware, and this stuff doesn't just "slip in". Apple was aware of the issue 6 months ago! Apple could fix it in a heartbeat if they wanted to. They went out of their way to make things more difficult for third party upgrade providers to upgrade the machine. So Apple can take their whiney little spin doctors attempts to pretend that this is just an accident, or that they didn't promise the G3 was upgradable and stuff it!

Some people are calling this a Trojan horse -- this is not a Trojan horse. A Trojan horse is something that pretends to do one thing, and then does another. Apple's ROM upgrade was real and did fix many things -- it just had one nasty features and intentional side effect.

Apple says that the G3 is not upgradable. Fine. PCs are. Do they really want to drive customers away?

Now all that is the negatives -- but there are some reasons. I just don't think the reasons are long term justifications -- but I'll mention them.

From a business point of view, this will help Apple short term. Apple guaranteed that 3rd parties wouldn't beat them to market with G4s (assisted by some arm twisting of Motorola to make G4s scarce to others). This helped Apple in marketing and in getting attention for the G4. Nobody could jump the gun and take the wind out of the G4s sales before Apple was ready. I don't disagree with that move (completely) -- it had a purpose, and it worked. The G4 announcement got far more attention from Apple (and by the press) than if an accellerator company announced they were shipping before Apple was.

On top of this, for users of the G4 to see the advantages, there really is no reason to jump the gun and buy a machine before Apple has the OS updated and other application developers have their enhanced version out. So it makes sense to for Apple to try to stop others from stealing their thunder -- especially when those others might have delivered a product that had no value (without the OS support) and actually harmed the impression of the processor. (Think of people getting an upgrade home that can't do anything of value).

There are also long term hardware issues with upgrading a Yosemite to a G4. The G4's 128 bit AltiVec/Velocity Engine can suck and spew data like nothing else. It really does go best with a new memory bus and the UniNorth memory controller in the Sawtooth. Faster upgrades are going not going to be able to run full speed in the older machine because the memory subsystem will be stalled waiting for a G3 (Yosemite's) memory controller to try to keep up. Apple's attitude seems to be that they don't want people to buy an upgrade that isn't going to get a good return on investment -- and give the G4 a bad name (as not being that big a deal). A minor point.

And longer term none of this matters -- the 3rd party companies will figure out ways to burn (flash) the boot ROMs themselves, and patch them for a G4 upgrade. There will be some costs -- like multiple versions of the boot ROMs (basically the same as the BIOS in the PC world), more difficult maintenance. Users who want to upgrade will have to do a more complex process, and there may be other minor issues and shakeout period while things get worked out. So long term this is not much of an issue -- but will cause a little pain.

None of this is big deal by itself -- and this isn't really any worse than the PC world. In the PC world, upgrade companies are on their own as well -- and some PC manufacturers have gone out of their way to "cripple" or at least tamper with things too. I still remember when Compaq used to rivet their motherboards to the case to make it harder to upgrade - so Apple is not unique in this stupidity. But PC makers learned that it was a waste of time, and Apple should too. It may have forced a few more upgrades (and machine sales) short term -- but long term it built animosity towards those same companies. They figured out that it just wasn't worth it.

Apple was already walking the line with putting little stickers over their jumpers to intimidate customers who wanted to upgrade their processors with "warranty void if broken" tape. That was uncalled for -- and I know that others have done that too, but Apple has to be better, not worse (or as bad). In the PC market I can buy many other motherboards and just replace things -- of course they break more often, and are harder to upgrade -- but they are cheaper to repair too. I understand that most users don't need this kind of upgrade, and won't use it. For many it isn't the right choice, since upgrading the entire machine gives them a larger performance boost and less issues. But I should still be able to choose, and for some it is very cost effective to upgrade. So Apple should get the hell out of the way, and not be a roadblock to its users.

The problem is that Apple shouldn't waste their energies being our guardians. A G4 will still be faster than their older G3 processor -- and shouldn't customers be able to decide what they want and what is a good value? Apple is free to advise and market -- but using tools of force are not ways to make friends. Does Apple really want customers thinking of Apple as the enemy or adversary, trying to block users? So Apple needs to fix the roadblock, and fast -- and stop with the marketing spin (see lies). I believe that the "road block" was a temporary move by Apple and Apple will fix it -- no harm, no foul. If it does turn out to be a permanent move, then I will cry foul, and there will be many pissed off Mac users.

Faux Pas

That isn't the only one of these little "issues" that have lowered my experiences with Macs of late. I have a beige G3 (Gossamer). Nice machine, works like a champ -- I love it. But the IDE controller can only handle one drive per IDE BUS -- where the design should handle more. It turns out that the earlier models had this oversight and was fixed in like a revision version of Gossamer. Hmmm. Stupid oversight that cost me, since I wanted to upgrade my drive space and I can't. One very minor ding on the user experience that I'll get over.

Then one of the IDE ports went bad on the logic board. A very rare occurrence. If my Gossamer motherboard supported Master-Slave IDE, then it would be no problem for me -- I'd just move the CD over to be a slave drive (on the other port) and everything would work fine. But I can't because my IDE ports don't support full master-slave like they should! That annoying little issue bit me again! And Apple's repair costs have gone up, and their warranty gone down (compared to the past) -- and I'm left a little burned and annoyed with Apple's "new" policies.

Well, stuff like this happens -- and it is forgivable. All companies have these issues -- and at least Apple was tweaking their design with the Blue and White G3s to handle flashable (updatable) ROMs to help fix these problems in the future. But then again, the first Blue and White's (Yosemite) came out, and guess what -- they reintroduced the master-slave IDE problem. They quickly fixed it, and later revision don't have the problem -- but again that isn't the point. There was no flash ROM update (to fix that problem) or anyway to make original Blue and White G3 machine work right -- and the warranty doesn't cover it.

So what I'm seeing is a rather annoying and costly trend. If I buy early, instead of being rewarded (as a customer), I'm be punished with only partially completed hardware. I'm left to question if the first G4s are going to have these problems as well? This is not a trend that makes me happy as either a Mac user, or as a Mac shareholder.


I'm concerned. I like my Macs -- but I like my Macs because they work(ed) better. They upgrade better (easier), they have far fewer problems, the warranty was better, the problems easier to fix, and so on. This hurt Apple in a few ways -- since the longer life-span of the machines means that their market share numbers were falsely low (1). But making the Mac more fragile, less upgradable and requiring more replacements isn't the right solution.

(1) If you have to upgrade or replace at PC every 3 years, and a Mac every 6, then the PC has to sell twice as many machines just to have the same number of machines in use. A 66/33% market share split in favor of the PC would really mean roughly the same number of working machines.

The OS is getting much better, a lot of the hardware design concepts are better. Heck, in most ways things are getting better -- and overall, these issues aren't a big deal. Most people don't need to add multiple IDE devices (beyond preconfigured) -- and those that want to add more storage often do better with SCSI's performance. Most people shouldn't be upgrading to a G4 because of all the subsystems that need to be upgraded at the same time to see the true performance potential of the G4. But "most" is not "all". I'm getting burned. Support people are having to know more arcane information (like revisions of hardware) to maintain Macs. This trend is not for the better. One mistake (on one model) and I look the other way, three or four of them shows a trend and I start to get pissed off. I expect shoddy unpolished products from PCs -- but not from Apple. And I don't expect any company to intentionally make it harder to upgrade machines and let me get the full benefit of my hardware choices -- and don't try to sell me that on a bad idea with spin and marketing.

Support from Apple has gotten worse over the last few years with lesser warranties and less ease in getting things fixed and more cost to do so. Apple is still better than trying to get support in the PC side of things, and has better quality and less failures -- but the trend is going the wrong way! Apple has decided that instead of striving to be much better (like they used to be), that the same (or just a little better) is good enough. And instead of their usual Apple philosophy of taking the time to design things right the first time, they are adopting the PC's philosophy of do it fast (get it out now) and fix it later.

The Mac is still the superior product (by far) over a PC -- and still requires far less support, has better track record for reliability and so on. And the software reliability is even better -- some recent pain with NT reminded me painfully of that fact. But the PCs have definitely been trending up in quality and ease of use over the past few years -- and in a few ways the Macs have not, or worse have even been trending down. That is something for me to be concerned about and keep an eye on.

Apple needs to be reminded of the first rule of business -- don't piss off (or piss on) your customers! Apple needs to make nice, fix the things they can (like ROM-Blocks) and for goodness sake, they shouldn't try to PR their way out of a mistake, or try to pull the wool over anyone's eyes -- the public is too smart for that. Just shutup and fix it.

Created: 09/06/99
Updated: 11/09/02

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