Last Week on My Mac: Apple Support and Demand

I started motorcycling when British bikes – Norton, Triumph, BSA – were notorious for their poor quality. They handled and performed superbly, but you could easily tell where a British bike had been parked, by the oilstains it had left on the ground.

Devoted owners would strip them down, replace and machine every component until it fitted and worked perfectly – a laborious process then known as blueprinting.

When I went soft and switched to cars, I was told a story of one of the world’s most reputable and successful high-quality car manufacturers.

Apparently, when they first built each car on their production line, their build quality was atrocious. Doors didn’t fit properly, panels were out of shape, and so on. They attained their final high quality through laborious and costly defect rectification, rather than building their cars right first time.

I can’t help but feel that Apple should learn from those, even if the latter story is more apocryphal than true. Not that Apple products are poorly built: despite the occasional troublesome component or model, my experience is that the great majority of Apple products are built excellently, even down to their packaging. Nor that Apple has to fix a lot of its products during the warranty period: again, with occasional exceptional models, most Apple hardware lasts longer than their spares support.

It’s actually another of Apple’s great strengths that points to one of its great weaknesses.

Last week, taking a single screenshot on my iPad Pro took me half an hour to get it in the right format, another half hour or so with Apple Support on Twitter, and 37 minutes on the phone with Apple Support to follow up. It took nearly two hours of my time to address an issue which could have been clarified in a single online search.

It was also a pro problem on an iPad Pro, in a field in which Apple has in the past been a great innovator and leader: publishing. All I wanted was my screenshot in PNG rather than JPEG format, so that it would be ready for pre-press for print.

The problem should never have happened in the first place. Whoever decided to change image format in iOS 11 shouldn’t ever had done so, as it baffles and annoys, and breaks pro workflows. Assuming, though, that there was a good reason for turning perfectly good PNG images into JPEGs, this should have been made plain in the user documentation for iOS 11.

Back in Classic Mac days, Apple produced superb printed documentation. For those complex technical issues which keep cropping up, its reference works were the Inside Macintosh series. Lovingly prepared by specialist technical authors using Macs and regular commercial Mac software, there was very little which they didn’t detail.

As I worked a lot with numerics in those days, my favourite was the hard-backed reference to SANE, the Standard Apple Numerics Environment. Every single arithmetic and mathematical call was explained in detail, even down to the algorithms used and their potential inaccuracies and errors.

Since then, Apple has seemingly abandoned its efforts to keep pace with documentation. In my sessions with Apple Support, it was clear that Apple’s own staff were unable to find any documentation which was relevant to my problem.

Apple Support is second to none. Its staff are meticulously polite, do everything that they can to understand the problem and to help, and make the whole experience as positive as possible. I do occasionally hear of customers who have less than perfect experiences with them, but I know of no other support service – apart possibly from the Samaritans – which attracts and deserves such consistent high praise.

Much of the time, though, Apple Support is providing information which should be readily obtainable by the user, of whatever level of expertise, from Apple’s documentation. In my case this week, it would only have taken a couple of lines in a list of changes for iOS 11.x, and I would have saved well over an hour.

Back in the days of printed user manuals and Inside Macintosh, there was another important principle in Apple’s design: if the only way a user could understand how to do something was to read the documentation, then that task was poorly designed.

In my case, with screenshots and image formats, there was a prior piece of good, consistent design: all iOS screenshots were in PNG, unless the user deliberately converted them using an app. To have iOS arbitrarily decide that some screenshots will be saved in PNG, and others in JPEG, is unfortunately typical of the bad and inconsistent design which has been steadily creeping into macOS and iOS.

Apple Support has to be wonderful now because there’s hardly anywhere else to go to find things out about our Macs and other Apple products, and because those products (operating systems in particular) have become so needlessly complicated that working out our own solutions is often impossible.

Like old British motorbikes and the legendary car manufacturer, Apple Support is fixing for users what shouldn’t be broken in the first place.