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Parts of the web have gone crazy since June and rarely managed to type a sentence not containing the term (I, and Apple’s spell-checker, don’t think it’s an actual word) ‘iPhone’. Some people were grumpy because of the device’s mean and technically (mostly) unnecessary limitations. Most notably from the lack of support for running non-Apple applications and for the iPhone refusing to use network cards not coming from AT&T in the US.

To add insult to injury, Apple also came up with bogus reasons why these limitations are ‘necessary’ and opened a number of rather crappy lines of arguments around that. Most notably the notion of taking down AT&T’s west coast network (why should I care? can’t they engineer their phones better if everybody else can?) and the notion of ‘web apps’ being fully fledged iPhone applications seemed ridiculous. And it appeared that the fact that Apple tried to use these kinds of ‘arguments’, thus implicitly letting you know that they think you’re an idiot, upset many people more than the iPhone’s limitations did. Selling people an artificially handicapped product – whose limitations may not be aggressively advertised but at least aren’t hidden – is one thing. Telling them they are idiots is another thing.

Obviously, with such a new and ‘exciting’ toy, there were enough skilled and enterprising geeks around to just remove the handicaps Apple put into the iPhone. That’s what always happens when corporations dream up such limitations. And, so far, the corporations tend to ‘lose‘ these competitions. And while the iPhone wasn’t immediately liberated from its limitations, people managed to do just that after a while. But then Apple came up with a firmware update which broke many of those efforts and allegedly even ‘bricked’ some of the iPhones.

I can totally see how an iPhone is a complex device and how running it and updating probably is quite close to black magic on the lower levels. And I can also see how Apple have no particularly big interest in supporting people who tried to circumvent the restrictions they ‘engineered’ into the iPhone. Which means all this makes a lot of sense. Superficially anyway.

On the other hand I keep thinking that Apple give people a bad deal. They use their resources (and thus their customers’ money) just to make the iPhone do less. To make it work with one kind of SIM card only. To seal its file system off, so it’s difficult for people to access that. And I mean that last point in a big way. What Apple does there is to make it hard to access the file system for a legitimate owner. While not making it impossible to access the file system for the ambitious hacker. This means that people pay Apple for a device that they, as the person who paid for it and making it, cannot have full access to the phone while someone who steals their phone and is after their data can still do just that. Bad!

While all these situations may improve within the next months – allegedly there are laws in France forcing phones to be available in unlocked versions as well, and allegedly Apple will provide some sort of SDK for the iPhone next year – this doesn’t remove the bad taste from the whole situation.

And concerning the situation people who ‘hacked’ their iPhone ended up being in, I read many comments that this was unsupported and that they shouldn’t complain. Which sounds logical. However, two things seem strange here. One of them is that usually fiddling with computer software means that you can just undo the changes you made or restore some default settings which will resolve any harm you have done by fiddling around. That’s what you have come to expect. And that’s how well-designed computers should behave. Of course, locking down a machine or its software artificially means that such a reset may not be possible to the user. But I really see that as a problem of the manufacturer.

I think a certain level of compromise and openness is required here. If you ask people at Apple, they’ll certainly tell you that their software is absolutely fantastic. And while they may be smart enough not to claim that their software is error free, they avoid admitting that their software has or had mistakes as a part of their nature. However, Apple’s software has bugs – as does any other software. So I’m cutting Apple some slack. And rather than expecting them to actually deliver perfectly working software, I’ll be content with them providing me with information how to solve certain problems. If something went awry with some application or settings and deleting a preference or reinstalling the software will solve the problem, there we go. Small effort for both of us, problem solved. And likewise I expect companies like Apple to give similar leeway to their customers. Which they don’t want to do with the iPhone.

The second, and quite possibly more important point is the following: If opening up the iPhone a bit is ‘unsupported’ use of the device, what is ‘supported’ use of software? And what can I expect of ‘supported’ software? If Apple can trash people’s iPhones for ‘unsupported’ use in a moment, shouldn’t they fix any problem with the ‘supported’ aspects of their software in a moment? Or at least within a week? I do think so. And I am tempted to think that the difference between ‘supported’ and ‘unsupported’ software is mostly in the eye of the people making the software. If they decide they don’t want to solve a problem they built into their supported software, the problem will remain unsolved for all practical purposes.

Just consider the Airport vs. RAM problem I had on my old iBook. I rendered the iBook unusable if you accessed the wireless network while using more than 1GB of RAM. Both features were ‘supported’ and even advertised but it still took Apple ages to solve the problem.

More crassly, consider the Spotlight problems I have had on my MacBooks for a year now. Essentially Spotlight doesn’t work. Any Spotlight request (which includes asking for the last opened date) makes the application doing it stall (at least if the application is synchronous like the Finder or all of Apple’s own open/save dialogues in column mode). This also means that you won’t find anything on the machine as Spotlight doesn’t give any results. So here we have one of the main new and heavily advertised features of Mac OS X.4 which Apple built into their own applications (Mail, Finder, Spotlight, Address Book) in a way that these applications absolutely rely on it for some of their features. And that just stopped working. Of course I did they usual dance of preference and Spotlight index deletion. But that didn’t solve the problem.

And that’s what ‘supported’ software feels like. For all practical purposes, I find it hard to see a difference between this and ‘unsupported’ software. With ‘unsuported’ software you do something ‘forbidden’ and end up in a situation where things are broken and your problem isn’t solved. With ‘supported’ you don’t do anything ‘forbidden’ and still end up in a situation where things are broken and your problem isn’t solved. If anything, the ‘unsupported’ situation is even preferable here because you at least got to do something ‘forbidden’ in the process.

With these experiences (and several other, similar, ones) regarding the meaning of ‘supported’ under my belt, I find it hard to buy that argument. I can totally understand that it’s impossible to guarantee that even mildly complex software works as advertised. But if software companies want their customers to accept that fact, they shouldn’t behave like complete asses in other other places.

October 24, 2007, 0:14

Tagged as software.

Comments

Comment by Simone Manganelli: User icon

Most notably the notion of taking down AT&T’s west coast network (why should I care? can’t they engineer their phones better if everybody else can?) and the notion of ‘web apps’ being fully fledged iPhone applications seemed ridiculous.

While the notion of “web apps” being “sweet” (Jobs said that, IIRC) is kinda lame, the taking down of the entire network has (supposedly, anyway) happened before. I forget who it was, but there was an article about just such a situation happening, and that it wasn’t as ridiculous as people claimed it could be. If I can find it, I’ll post the link.

One of them is that usually fiddling with computer software means that you can just undo the changes you made or restore some default settings which will resolve any harm you have done by fiddling around.

Fiddling with computer software is one thing, and yes you can undo that with a restore of the iPhone through iTunes. This is not what we’re talking about. We’re talking about fiddling with the FIRMWARE, and I’ve not heard about a single person who does that with their Mac. And yet I haven’t heard any outcries about Apple “locking” users into their own proprietary Mac firmware.

Anyone who unlocked their iPhone so that they could install third-party applications on it was fiddling with software, and not a one of those people who did that got bricked, even if you updated to 1.1.1 without undoing the unlocking. Anyone who jailbreaked their phone was fiddling with firmware, and that’s where the potential for “bricking” came in.

This means that people pay Apple for a device that they, as the person who paid for it and making it, cannot have full access to the phone while someone who steals their phone and is after their data can still do just that. Bad!

Um, what? The person who paid for it doesn’t have access to their own data, while the thief does? Um, no. Just because a thief is more technically-oriented and is able to unlock/jailbreak a phone doesn’t mean he has more access to the original owner’s data, especially since iTunes syncs it all to your Mac and you can access it all through the iPhone interface. I don’t see how this qualifies as “bad” at all, unless “bad” to you means “I can’t do something that Apple told me I couldn’t do but I bought the iPhone anyway”.

Just consider the Airport vs. RAM problem I had on my old iBook. I rendered the iBook unusable if you accessed the wireless network while using more than 1GB of RAM. Both features were ‘supported’ and even advertised but it still took Apple ages to solve the problem.

Then you could have made a stink about it if you wanted to. You could have called up Apple technical support and asked them to help you through the problem and demand a bit of credit in exchange for the time/money you wasted on your RAM. Or you could have filed a lawsuit claiming false advertising.

Yeah, all these options are time-consuming and probably not something that you as a user wants to do. But can you suggest a better system? I mean, if every user filed a lawsuit against Apple for false advertising when they find a bug that contradicts their marketing copy, corporations wouldn’t want to even exist.

So what’s a realistic way of dealing with an industry which has an entrenched opinion that bugs can be shipped in software? I mean, it’s not entirely unrealistic to think that all software has bugs and that requiring software not to have bugs means that software wouldn’t exist at all. And what if the bug is incredibly hard to reproduce — while this may not be the case in your situation, should Apple be liable for not being able to find the bug?

Any Spotlight request (which includes asking for the last opened date) makes the application doing it stall (at least if the application is synchronous like the Finder or all of Apple’s own open/save dialogues in column mode). This also means that you won’t find anything on the machine as Spotlight doesn’t give any results.

Do you not get ANY results, or does it just take a really long time before the application stops stalling? In any case, have you tried booting from an external drive and from a fresh OS to see if that solves the problem? (i.e.: is it an actual bug, or is it a result of your config somehow)

But if software companies want their customers to accept that fact, they shouldn’t behave like complete asses in other other places.

No, these are two entirely unrelated situations. If you’re having a problem with Spotlight or your iBook, Apple should make a reasonable attempt to help you solve those problems or it should give you compensation for the time/money you’ve spent. You having problems with Spotlight or your iBook in no way means that Apple should give leeway to those who jailbreak their phones.

October 24, 2007, 1:32

Comment by ssp: User icon

Then you could have made a stink about it if you wanted to. You could have called up Apple technical support and asked them to help you through the problem and demand a bit of credit in exchange for the time/money you wasted on your RAM. Or you could have filed a lawsuit claiming false advertising.

Yeah, I’m sure that would have worked. My experiences with Apple’s customer support in Germany are experiences that mostly revolve around incompetence and lies. I doubt I would have gotten anything but wrecked nerves from that.

Instead, being the optimistic and helpful person that I am, I reported the problems with all the details I could gather and the offer to answer more questions in case they arise. That didn’t help too much.

Do you not get ANY results, or does it just take a really long time before the application stops stalling? In any case, have you tried booting from an external drive and from a fresh OS to see if that solves the problem? (i.e.: is it an actual bug, or is it a result of your config somehow)

There are OS versions in which the problem doesn’t exist. However, current versions of OS X.4 together with my Spotlight database tend fuck up mds to an unresponsive mess that does nothing but write error messages to the console. After deleting the index, usually Spotlight will work OK for a short time (hours) and then it’s back to brokenness.

October 24, 2007, 1:58

Comment by Simone Manganelli: User icon

Yeah, I’m sure that would have worked. My experiences with Apple’s customer support in Germany are experiences that mostly revolve around incompetence and lies. I doubt I would have gotten anything but wrecked nerves from that.

I suppose you probably do have a higher chance of getting crappy customer support in a country that’s not where the company is HQed. Are there official Apple channels, or do you have to go through a third-party Apple specialist or something?

There are OS versions in which the problem doesn’t exist. However, current versions of OS X.4 together with my Spotlight database tend fuck up mds to an unresponsive mess that does nothing but write error messages to the console. After deleting the index, usually Spotlight will work OK for a short time (hours) and then it’s back to brokenness.

Maybe there’s a particular file that it chokes on? You don’t happen to have any files saved with those multi-accented characters, do you? :P

October 24, 2007, 2:26

Comment by ssp: User icon

I suppose you probably do have a higher chance of getting crappy customer support in a country that’s not where the company is HQed.

So what? Apple take the some money from people in other countries. Err sorry, Apple usually increase their prices as soon as their products are sold outside the US.

Are there official Apple channels, or do you have to go through a third-party Apple specialist or something?

This would be a software support issue. So I think I’d have to head right for the Apple hotline. Which I avoid like hell. For hardware support things improved considerably since Apple allows local dealers to handle it rather than sending everything to them. (Luckily our local dealer is very good.)

Maybe there’s a particular file that it chokes on? You don’t happen to have any files saved with those multi-accented characters, do you? :P

As a matter of principle, I don’t care. The computer shouldn’t choke on any files. Particularly if breaking Spotlight affects numerous applications in their basic features.

Of course I tried to find out what causes this anyway. But Spotlight just doesn’t give any error messages. And as the problem is the mds process, watching the indexing process in the hope to find a ‘problematic file’ (euphemism for buggy software) doesn’t help at all.

October 24, 2007, 2:41

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