For the last several years, for those with 800-number access, if you experienced problems with your Mac, you could call Apple toll-free at 800/SOS-APPL. As of last week, however, Apple has multiplied its telephone customer support options to bring it in line with industry standards and to try to recoup the high cost of technical support. Although the shift isn't sudden or surprising, Apple's implementation of its new policies has been less than clear. Here is a brief rundown of what to expect if you need to contact Apple with a problem. [Most of this article applies to people in the United States; our apologies to readers in other countries who have questions along these lines. -Tonya]
A Winding Path -- Last February, Apple reduced free telephone help for Performa owners from 24 hours a day, seven days per week, to 12 hours per day, five days per week, in order to concentrate resources on those hours when the volume of calls was highest.
Then, in March, Apple announced the basics of the current plan: all new Apple customers who bought products after 01-Apr-96 receive 90 days of free phone support. Callers requesting help after that period will be directed to other support options, including Technical Support Online and the new fee-based Apple Support Line (see below). Until 15-May-97, however, the company wasn't strictly enforcing the 90 day limit.
Now, Apple is sticking to the policy set forth in March, with three exceptions: Lifetime technical support will be available via 800/SOS-APPL in education channels; for Apple-branded products purchased between 01-Apr-93 and 01-Apr-96; and for Performas purchased between 01-Sep-92 and 01-Apr-96. The last two conditions apply the original owners of Apple equipment..
Apple's new support structure now incorporates four main areas:
AppleAssurance -- AppleAssurance covers every Apple product and includes a one-year, worldwide hardware warranty and 90 days of free phone support (800/500-7078). You must provide your Support Access Number, included with your product.
Apple Support Line - Level I -- For a $69.95 annual fee, you can sign up for the new Apple Support Line - Level I. (There doesn't seem to be a Level II.) This support option covers one CPU and attached peripherals in the United States for up to one year or ten incidents (defined as "a question relating to a specific, discrete problem that can be answered by isolating its origin to a single cause"). Phone support is available Monday through Friday, 6 A.M. to 6 P.M., Pacific Time. Those who cough up the cash will also receive a free Macintosh: Beyond the Basics CD-ROM. Call toll-free 888/APL-VALU (888/275-8258) to sign up through Apple, or contact your local reseller.
AppleCare -- Apple's extended service program works the same as the one-year hardware warranty, with prices varying depending by product and whether you choose carry-in, on-site, or mail-in service (the price for my PowerBook 5300cs, for example, is approximately $240 for a year of the carry-in option).
Support Professional -- Geared toward support managers and staff, Apple's Support Professional option costs $2,000 to $3,400 per year and includes access to a private Web site with an expanded Tech Info Library, software updates, disk images of all Apple software, and Apple manuals in PDF format. Apple also provides bimonthly support CDs and quarterly support briefing teleconferences.
What about AppleClub? Although it first appeared to be an offshoot of Apple's support options, AppleClub is more of an added service. For a $19.95 annual fee, members receive exclusive software and hardware discounts, Apple software updates accessible via private servers, a free CD-ROM, and, presumably, that hey-buddy feeling of belonging to an exclusive club.
Apple has come a long way from when the company provided its operating system free of charge, and though I expect that technical support was a big red line in Apple's profit and loss statement, it's sad to bid farewell to yet another aspect of what was once a rather idealistic company. In particular, small businesses who own a number of Macs may find the new pricing particularly unpalatable, and it sounds like quite the headache for consultants who need to contact Apple regarding clients' machines. For the money, though, I hope Apple will be able to provide uniformly quick, competent, and friendly service.