When things go wrong in Apple-land

In a previous post i discussed a way Apple could tweak its development process to make its software products more reliable. But even if Apple can achieve a product that fails 0.0001% of the time, that’s still a pretty large absolute number of failures at Apple’s scale. And what’s worse, now that Apple’s products need to have a lot of systems working perfectly together in order to work, when something is going wrong, Apple’s support staff are now woefully unable to solve the problem.

If I walk into the Genius Bar with something straightforward like a dead power supply, I’m walking out a satisfied customer. But if I’m walking in with a sufficiently complex problem, or a problem that is intermittent, or a problem that in some way touches a third party system, then it’s a frustrating road ahead of me.

When iPods first became a thing, a common way to diagnose them was to just do a factory reset and see if the problem persisted after that. It wasn’t a big deal, and since the iPod was an appliance of sorts, this was a reasonable approach. But I’m commonly hearing Geniuses ask me to do the same thing to my Mac now when they encounter a problem they don’t understand that well. The Mac is a full-on desktop computer; if you have a specific issue with it, that is an expensive and overkill way to try to diagnose the problem, and even if a reformat does fix the problem, you at best are just saying “okay, I know it’s not the hardware.” Oh, and now I have to spend the next two weeks getting everything configured the way I like it. Whoopee. Apple still commonly uses this approach with iPhones too, which isn’t as bad of an issue with Macs, but restoring an iPhone from backup is still a multi-hour process and given that you’re just restoring an exact copy of its configuration from before, when you restore you typically restore the problem too.

Even worse are the inane troubleshooting steps Apple staff now try to walk you through just to make it seem like they’re trying something. You of course have your classic Mac troubleshooting steps like resetting the PRAM and SMC, but now that issues can sometimes involve things like iCloud, I’m hearing other silly-sounding solutions that scream that Apple’s support staff are grasping at straws for some sense of being able to dig into a problem. Calling through your iPhone isn’t working? Well, restart your wireless router of course! Yeah, I’ll just have my IT guy reboot my office wireless access points because that’s Apple’s best guess.

And I’m not blaming Apple support staff for not being helpful. These are the limited tools they have at their disposal to try to hope something works. This isn’t good enough with the level of complexity Apple’s systems have, though. 

As Apple is developing these new features they need to be also developing powerful diagnostic tools their support people can use to zero in on exactly where the problem is. If the Call With iPhone feature is failing when I try to receive a phone call on my Mac, there should be a way for a genius to dig into the problem on my Mac and my iPhone to see where the breakdown is happening. If I’m having iMessages issues, a Genius should be able to crack open logging data for my account (bonus points if there’s no way to do it without my explicit permission) and look at logs (with all my actual message content still encrypted and/or redacted, of course).

Another thing I’d really love to see is better visibility into my backups. There’s no excuse in 2015 for iCloud not to be able to show me detailed contents of my backup, and let me pick what I want to restore (and while I’m making reasonable requests, show me actual details about the progress of my restore, like what it’s currently restoring and what it needs to do still)

Having tools like this in place can help prevent that feeling of helplessness when a magical Apple system isn’t behaving so magically for you.

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