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A Nasty Fix for Apple

By Alex Salkever Who likes Apple Care? Not many people, judging from the reactions I've heard, including some from readers of this column. Apple's inhouse support squad gets only a tepid nod from even the most die-hard Mac lovers. Plenty of Mac owners have had unsatisfactory experiences, and that's certainly been true in my own case: I found the phone trees frustrating and the help not so helpful. These failures might explain why thousands of Mac owners pay to subscribe to the excellent site and rely on it as their primary source of tech-support information. Often, MacFixit has lively discussions about bugs Apple itself has refused to acknowledge.

This situation is hardly unique to Apple (AAPL). Most computer owners I know say the support they receive, Wintel or Mac, is spotty at best. And to be fair, my experience with support from other PC companies has been on par with my experiences with Apple. Most computer users just seem to shrug and live with it. That's not a good thing, in my view. Which is why I applaud the actions of the Neistat brothers, Casey and Van, and hope they are taken as a lesson at One Infinite Loop. Here's a summary of their tale of digital disobedience.

In September, 2003, the battery on Casey's 18 month-old 15 gigabyte iPod had degraded to the point where it would only run his player for an hour. When he called Apple Care to ask how could get the battery replaced, they suggested he buy a new iPod for about $400. He found this advice less than helpful. Casey pursued the matter further with Apple, sending a note to Steve Jobs's office, getting basically the same reply.

MISSED OPPORTUNITY. As a form of protest, Casey, 22, and Van, 28, mounted what they called an "antiadvertising project." Camcorder in hand, they made the rounds of the ubiquitous iPod promotional posters plastered all over Manhattan. At each one they stenciled in a simple message: "iPod's unreplaceable battery lasts only 18 months" and filmed the act. The week of Thanksgiving they posted their film online. Hundreds of thousands of people clicked to watch it, they say.

To its credit, Apple had already realized it might have a problem, and had begun offering a battery replacement service for $99 and a $59 Apple Care iPod warranty around the time the Neistats took their act to the Web. Outside replacement services for the iPod batteries existed even before that. The trouble is, Apple Care didn't know about those changes and was unable to help the Neistats.

Apple Care should have notified Casey Neistat about its inhouse battery service or, alternatively, pointed him to the nonsanctioned services as a last resort. Either move might have headed off what turned into the type of viral negative publicity that's every company's worst nightmare. (While the company doesn't dispute the Neistat brothers' story about their experience with Apple Care, it declined to comment for this story.)

BAD TIMING. Apple's run-in with the Neistat brothers came at an especially bad time for the company. Thanksgiving and the weeks subsequent are the heaviest shopping periods of the year. Apple undoubtedly expected to chalk up a significant portion of its iPod sales during the holiday period (Apple doesn't break out its sales figures, but as a comparison, Sony Electronics (SNE) books close to one-third of its revenues during the holiday shopping season).

To top it off, the video came out just as a host of competing players from Dell (DELL), Samsung, and others are hitting the market and taking a bead on iPod fans. In fact, in a recent BusinessWeek interview, Dell's chief marketing officer specifically mentioned the extended battery life of his outfit's recently released hard-drive MP3 player as being a selling point over the competition -- read, iPod (see BW Online, 12/9/03, "Dell Jacks Into the Digital Hub"). Apple can ill afford publicity black-eyes as it faces intense competition in the music player space for the first time.

It didn't have to be this way. Properly trained support reps would have headed this problem off long before it blossomed into a subversive online antiadvertising campaign. And a better customer-support system in general could be a huge selling point for Apple, as users encounter increasing complexity in pulling together the various pieces of the digital lifestyle.

Here's where Apple can think different and act differently, too -- by selling the coolest toys, and making sure that a call for help is also a totally cool experience. Salkever, Technology editor for BusinessWeek Online, is alternating with Charles Haddad on Byte of the Apple

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