"All that is old and already formed can continue to live only if it allows within itself the conditions of a new beginning."
My iBook Failed Me
Special to the St. Paul Pioneer Press
This is a love story because, in spite of myself, I still adore my little iBook laptop. But it's also a horror story.
I'll bet the hundreds of other iBook owners now threatening to sue Apple Computer started out loving their portables, too, and maybe many still do.
But, man, are they mad - class-action-lawsuit mad - because of an apparent slew of catastrophic iBook malfunctions in recent months.
Many of these misadventures are detailed on the aptly named BlackCider.com site, where hundreds of iBook owners have added their names to a lawsuit-related petition.
I won't be joining the disgruntled iBook owners in any legal action. My inconvenient journalistic ethics preclude writing this story while simultaneously suing Apple's ass, so I'll limit myself to telling my hair-raising tale.
You might want to sit down.
About a year ago, I bought a new 700-megahertz iBook mainly to store and play back interviews recorded on my Olympus digital voice recorder. Apple is famed for embracing digital media, so this seemed like a wise choice.
Before long, I was so enamored of my iBook that it became my main computer. Connected to my high-speed Digital Subscriber Line via an Apple AirPort wireless-networking base station, I could work on my writing projects and access online resources anywhere in my home.
I was ecstatic - until June 28. My screen began blinking. Soon it turned an empty blue, then black.
Two days later, I began roughly 12 hours of phone calls with Apple service representatives. I had a faulty video cable, they finally told me. Send the iBook in. This surprised me because I hadn't abused the still-new unit, but I mailed it off.
Because of a shipping mix-up that temporarily misdirected the machine, I didn't get it back until July 11. At that point, I copied the hard drive's contents onto an external hard drive - or so I thought - and happily resumed work.
On Nov. 10, the screen blinked again, then went black. Exasperated, I spent more time on the phone with customer service and was told the same thing - send it in for repairs.
Apple returned it Nov. 14 with another replacement cable and, this time, a new logic board. All this was still covered by the AppleCare warranty I bought when my troubles began, but I had many more of those ahead.
A Cricket Chirp
Something clearly was wrong when I fired up the iBook again. The digital recorder's software worked fitfully and often crashed - it hadn't before - and the iBook emitted a scraping, almost cricket-like chirp. Stupidly, perhaps, I kept using the laptop.
Within two weeks, my problems deepened. The scratching got louder and the computer, if it booted at all, promptly crashed. I tried an emergency data backup, but it failed halfway through.
By Nov. 26 - just 12 days after the last repair - the hard drive was toast. I spent half a day on the phone seeking help, finally getting bumped up to a higher-level "customer relations" representative who squelched my request for a replacement laptop.
On Dec. 5, I sent in the laptop for a replacement drive. I opted to have Apple attempt data recovery for $50, a fee that would be waived if retrieval failed.
On Dec. 9, an Apple rep assured me my precious data was safe. Not true.
When I got the iBook back and booted it up, I found a pristine operating system but none of my files. All my research for a book in progress was gone. Every recorded interview was missing.
I fired up my external hard drive to retrieve my backup files but, inexplicably, it contained no documents or audio clips - just a few of my digital tunes.
Panicking, I called Apple and got passed from rep to rep. My files couldn't be retrieved, one finally told me, but I was offered my old hard drive for 30 days so I could send it to data-recovery specialists. Furious, I demanded express delivery. Apple agreed.
Five days later, no one at Apple could figure out if the drive had shipped, much less scrounge up a tracking number.
On the seventh day, Dec. 16, the "overnight" delivery finally came. I took it to data-recovery firm Kroll Ontrack in Eden Prairie, where I learned it was physically damaged. I authorized recovery of anything salvageable.
Incredibly, right after I left Ontrack's offices, Apple called. Dispatchers had mixed up hard drives and sent me the wrong one, I was told. Forty minutes later, the firm called back to correct itself: I had the right drive.
But, by then, I learned that Apple had charged me $50 for its unsuccessful data recovery. So I hit the phones again to get the credit-card charge reversed.
It wasn't until Dec. 19 that Ontrack finished analyzing the disc and gave me a quote: $1,200.
On Dec. 20, with scant cash for holiday shopping, I found myself at the jam-packed Mall of America grumbling like the Grinch and cursing Steve Jobs.
You'd think such an experience rare. In October 2002, after all, Apple Computer was the only computer manufacturer to improve over 2001 in Consumer Reports customer-service rankings. All other computer companies, except for Dell, received poor marks.
But Apple has seen its share of quality-control problems lately. Fuzzy white spots have appeared on the screens of newer PowerBooks. Flaws in a new version of the Mac OS X operating system contributed to data loss on certain types of external hard drives.
And battery problems with some of Apple's iPod music players recently created something of an Internet and media frenzy. A New York man with a dead iPod launched a much-publicized online protest when Apple reportedly told him he'd have to buy a new player. Battery-replacement options from Apple and others have since calmed the storm.
Mark Margevicius, a Gartner research director who covers PC technology, thinks my own experience might be a sign of things to come. Apple's customer-service problems stem from the same pressures that gum up other PC companies' call centers, he said.
"I think that as the market goes, so goes Apple," Margevicius said. "As long as their competition continues to push and push and push on price, they're going to be caught up in that. They're going to have to find ways to cut corners." Customer service could be one of those corners, he believes.
Apple's move into consumer electronics, starting with its iPod, could exacerbate the problem. AppleCare protection plans are now available for the players, which means Apple has assumed greater responsibility for their welfare.
Packing more and more features into smaller and smaller Macs, too, could mean more computer failures, Margevicius said.
My own worrying isn't over, apparently, even if my hardware malfunctions appear to have subsided for now.
On the MacInTouch.com site, iBook users describe recurring glitches with their iBooks. One man writes that his monitor went black four times in 2003, prompting three logic-board replacements. A BlackCider.com contributor uses a home movie to tell a similar tale.
So maybe I have more Apple misadventures ahead. I better sit down.
Kevin Featherly is a Bloomington writer specializing in politics and technology. He wrote most of this article on his now-infamous iBook laptop.
Originally published in the St. Paul Pioneer Press, Jan. 7, 2004.
About Kevin Featherly