Last Week on My Mac: Support, dependence, control

The last couple of weeks must have been hell in Apple Support, as a result of two major problems with a flawed MRT security update and the sudden loss of support for most older HP printers. My concern here isn’t about what happened, or blamestorming as to who might have been responsible. On the first there wasn’t much doubt soon after the problem occurred, and on the latter everyone involved is keeping silent now, so all we can do is speculate without any useful evidence. In any case, blaming doesn’t do anything to ensure the errors don’t recur.

What puzzles me most is how inefficient Apple appears to be when dealing with such widespread problems.

In years past, support experts would have collaborated with engineers to discover what went wrong, and together they’d produce guidance for users, which would be published as swiftly as possible. Although plenty of users would still call in, the majority of us would go straight to the Support Note and fix the problem for ourselves. In both recent cases, getting reliable advice without contacting Apple or HP support was difficult to say the least.

The architecture of Apple’s silent security updates made it peculiarly difficult for anyone outside Apple to decide the best way to negotiate SIP and softwareupdate so that any temporary fix lasted more than a few hours. macOS doesn’t appear to offer any effective contingency plan for how to deal with a destructive update like that. It’s almost as if the security update system is engineered to make it vulnerable to bugs, as I commented last week.

The HP printer problem was even more complex, because there were so many different setups which were affected, and there also appeared to be multiple points of failure. When the code signing certificate had been unrevoked, some users still reported problems with some components of the printer software which may have been compounded by notarization requirements in Catalina.

It unfortunately fell between Apple and HP, although at least the latter finally published a clear set of instructions explaining how to resolve the problem, even if that didn’t work for all users, and took HP nearly four days.

These are but two examples of situations where Apple has apparently pursued a policy of leaving users to rely on its one-to-one support services rather than publish anything for the many.

That can’t be mere accident: take the example of permission problems in Home folders. For several years, Apple had provided diagnostic advice and bundled tools in macOS to tackle this not uncommon problem. The recommended solution grew steadily more challenging, most recently involving Recovery mode and potentially reinstalling the whole of macOS, until suddenly a few months ago Apple removed its Support Note, and presumably now expects those suffering problems to contact Apple Support one at a time.

If users paid for support incidents, as developers do, I could understand Apple’s preference for delivering support to individuals rather than informing the masses of how to deal with problems themselves. Given the investment Apple must be making in its support services, I can’t believe that this is mere denial that there are problems: over the last couple of weeks, Apple has given away a great deal of free support without any good business justification.

Of course, Apple’s support isn’t free, any more than warranty repairs aren’t. In the long run, you and I pay for that support every time that we buy one of Apple’s products. In return, as customers, we do get an excellent service: a glance at its list of worldwide support numbers is telling. While those trying to contact HP support discovered that it shuts down over the weekend, it seems that Apple support never sleeps, and speaks the language of your choice.

Product support is an important part of reputation, and builds customer loyalty, but I don’t believe those are sufficient to justify Apple’s spending on one-to-one support. It may give some customers that warm and fuzzy feeling, but that counts for little on Apple’s bottom line.

What good product support can do is induce dependence. The more you come to rely on Apple to sort your problems out, the more dependent you are on Apple, and through that dependence comes control. When you know what a T2 chip is and how to use Apple Configurator to recover a Mac with problems in its T2 firmware, then you’re unlikely to need Apple Support much, and can operate largely independently, at least until you encounter hardware problems.

We have yet to understand what Apple’s increasing investment in one-to-one customer support will bring. I doubt that its intent is to generate income by charging for support provided outside schemes like AppleCare, but as a means of making customers more dependent on Apple, it has great potential.