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Apple Repair, Continued

Just as our modem issue garnered many comments that you’ll see in a future issue, so did Fred Condo’s open letter complaining about Apple’s repair policies. People brought up many excellent points about why Apple doesn’t officially do component level repair, which I’ll try to represent here.

As Keith Bourgoin <[email protected]> wrote, Apple is essentially saying, "We don’t make those CD-ROM drives, so we can’t get the individual parts even if we wanted them." Think of it like this: Sony builds a CD-ROM drive for Apple and stamps an Apple logo on it. That drive doesn’t even necessarily appear in Apple’s factories. A glaring example is the Apple Color Printer, which goes straight from Canon’s factories to Apple’s warehouses. Apple never gets the individual parts that make up that CD-ROM drive or color printer. Thus, when Apple provides repair parts, they provide a "unit" from Sony or Canon.

In that sense, Fred’s specific complaint isn’t Apple’s fault, but Sony’s. And, as Jeff Provost <> wrote, getting through to Sony’s parts department is an exercise in frustration. If you connect to a large company’s parts department, as Bill Coderre <[email protected]> said in another mailfile (and to be clear, Bill says he is not the Official Apple Voice Of Truth[tm]), they may refuse to sell you a single gear. A bag of 50, sure, but since the company Bill was talking about wouldn’t sell anything for less than $50 for bookkeeping reasons, the customer had to buy a bag of 50 gears. I guess that’s better than buying a new widget, but not much better.

That answers the question for Apple-branded equipment that Apple doesn’t make, but what about motherboards, which Apple does make? Someone wrote to us with a horror story about how a picture fell off his wall and hit the SCSI port on the back of his IIci, pulling out one of the threaded holes for the SCSI cable screw. He said the part didn’t appear integral to the motherboard, but he had to replace the entire board to fix it.

The problem is threefold. First, Apple uses a just-in-time inventory method that tries to ensure when a Mac is ordered, it’s built right then and shipped out. That’s over-simplifying, but the idea is that Apple doesn’t have a large inventory of raw parts or completed machines, ever. A large quantity of tiny repair parts in the dealer channel would cause inventory problems, tracking problems, and accounting problems, and as much as it’s fun to complain, that costs money, which would raise the cost of Macs. Second, more and more of the parts on Apple’s motherboards are custom designed for Apple, which means that the manufacturers only make as many as Apple will use. We’re not talking the original IBM PC here, which IBM created with almost entirely off-the-shelf parts. Third and finally, if Apple made these parts available to repair centers, they would have to ensure that repair centers had people skilled enough to do component level repair. Would you trust your dealer to have someone that skilled? Some yes, some no.

Also, a company may not make parts available because that encourages untrained people to open equipment and try to fix it. That’s all fine if the equipment is old, but what if it’s under warranty? Does the company honor that warranty even though your soldering iron slipped and melted a hole in the controller card?

William Humphries <[email protected]> passed on an interesting note. Apparently Kodak lost an antitrust suit filed against it by a group of frustrated repair centers that could not get parts. William didn’t have the original suit, and I haven’t found it, so I don’t know if the situation is similar.

Finally, our friend Oliver Habicht <[email protected]> from Cornell expressed an interesting viewpoint. As Oliver sees it, the problem is similar to the question of whether to repair or replace a broken VCR. When a mechanical system wears out, it stresses other parts of the system, and in some cases, like on a bicycle derailleurs, the parts wear together. Thus, when one breaks, it’s a sign that more will break soon, and often when repairing a VCR, the technician replaces related, weakened parts. On a bike, if you replace one part of the derailleur system without replacing other parts, you may have trouble because the new part and the old ones aren’t worn in the same ways and stress each other differently (and from experience, they’ll make miserable whining sounds until they’ve worn enough so you can adjust them correctly :-)).Thus, the decision to not provide repair parts may be related to the likelihood of a successful long-term repair.

Of course, this leaves open the possibility that independent people could do component-level repair. These people do exist – a guy we knew in Ithaca would fix a broken part rather than replace the motherboard, usually cannibalizing parts from dead Macs. He was popular, and if any of you enterprising electrical engineers need a job to tide you over in this tired economic climate, think about board-level repairs. Have enough saved up to replace a motherboard should you toast it, though. We would like to see more independent repair shops that could do this, and would ask only that Apple not hinder such independent people, although for the reasons outlined above, it would be reasonable if Apple did not offer additional help.

I hope this explains the many reasons and views for why Apple doesn’t provide low-level repair parts, because this policy will continue. With something like the Newton, there will be no repair – if it breaks, you’ll get a new one, for free if it’s in warranty, for a fee if it’s not.

Postscript — Fred Condo <[email protected]> passed on the rest of the story of his CD-ROM repair quest:

Six weeks after I took my Apple CDSC CD-ROM drive in for repairs, and with the help of the Internet community, my local technician found the right Sony division to sell him the $5 gear. It cost $5. His labor cost $65, for a $70 total. That this is preferable to Apple’s $500 module swap is, I should hope, self-evident. In an installation whose CD-ROM drive was an economic necessity and not something of a luxury, my decision would have been an instant replacement of the drive with something from NEC. Sony and Apple have lost my peripherals patronage until this policy changes. They have been publicly chastised here on the Internet (my email is running 100% anti-Apple on this). Surely this loss of good will must count against any fiscal savings Apple achieves by their policy.

[Just don’t expect decent service from NEC – most NEC tech support horror stories involve explaining Mac basics to the technician. I don’t believe Apple and Sony stand alone in this sort of policy, since I remember reading of a journalist’s equivalently-convoluted quest for a new ball for his IBM PS/2 mouse. -Adam]

I will continue to buy Apple’s wonderful computers whenever I need a computer. I won’t buy any of their peripherals unless they make a commitment to repair the things at a reasonable price after the sale.

[Fred offered rebuttals to the explanations as to why Apple cannot officially handle component-level repair, but we cannot spare the space. Suffice it to say that Fred feels that Apple could overcome the objections if they wished. Apple, or at least the people who responded to Fred’s original letter, feels differently, so for the moment we will have to agree to disagree, and we can all individually decide if we wish to consider how companies handle this issue in our purchasing plans. -Adam]

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