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Apple Repair, Part 17

All this talk of what should and shouldn’t be done as far as component-level repair made me think, and I realized that no one knows what goes on within Apple in terms of old parts. Let’s try to dispel some of the mystery.

The World Wide Service group does Apple’s repairs. The group came to life through one of Apple’s many reorganizations. In this case, reorganization improved on the old system, under which each geographical region did its own repair. Bringing all repair work under one centralized department made tracking and coordination easier, and thus cheaper. Remember that the bottom line is always green, although I suppose that allusion only works in societies having green money.

Most authorized repair happens at Apple’s dealers (not including the on-site service for the Performas, the mail-in services for the PowerBooks, and authorized corporate service providers) but as we know, dealers are not authorized to do much other than swap out part of the affected unit and replace it with a functioning part. The trick is that the dealer buys the new part from Apple, outlaying cash to keep it in stock (dealers may not be able to afford to keep all parts in stock) or spending somewhat less to special order the part for immediate use in a damaged Mac.

When a damaged motherboard comes in for repair, for instance, the dealer replaces the damaged board with one in stock (or with one ordered immediately), and returns the damaged one to Apple. If the dealer doesn’t return the damaged part quickly enough, Apple charges the dealer the difference between the stock price and the lower exchange price. Although prices seem high to the user, dealers (as it’s been explained to me) generally make little money on repairs. Prices for the repair parts from Apple, especially the stock prices, are quite high so Apple can be sure the dealer will return damaged equipment rather than let it float around and potentially be used incorrectly, either damaging Apple’s reputation or bilking other users. Psst, wanna buy a cheap motherboard?

Dealers need to make some money on repairs, and yet, if they charge too much, customers feel irritated and go elsewhere. On the other hand, dealers may want to charge enough to tempt customers into buying the latest model, which is, of course, sleeker, faster, and cheaper than the damaged model.

Apple treats different types of returns differently, as you might expect. At the lowest level we find products that Apple throws away, although this currently only applies to mice. Why toast the rodents? That bottom line gets them every time because it costs more to deal with a dead mouse than it does to make a new one. A person has to unpack, fix, test, re-pack, and then place into storage the affected mouse, and even at the low wages a technician might earn, it costs more to repair than it’s worth to Apple. The price you pay has several markups added on, so although it may only cost (these numbers are not real) $20 to fix a $75 mouse, that mouse may only cost Apple $10 new.

Components, the Mac parts that are added in like hard drives, floppy drives, fans, power supplies, (but not motherboards), present interesting problems. As we said in the last installment of this sudsy operetta, Apple doesn’t make the components in the current Macintoshes. Apple may have helped design the part, and may be the only company using it, but another company does the manufacturing.

Many components, such as hard drives, come with warranties longer than the standard Apple one year warranty. This presents a problem, because Apple cannot currently track the individual components, so if a hard drive fails within its warranty to Apple, Apple cannot currently have the original manufacturer repair or replace it. Apple is working on this problem, as you might expect, since the cost savings, which are currently absorbed by Apple and not passed on to the consumer, are staggering. As it stands now, Apple replaces dead components and either scraps the dead unit or puts it on the service heap. Again, since many of these parts are either too difficult or too expensive to fix, much of the dead stuff gets trashed.

For instance, opening a hard drive is not for the weak of heart, and probably shouldn’t be done outside a clean room. Vacuuming the den is not a sufficient level of cleanliness. And, from experience (a friend and I tried to fix my dead floppy drive once), there can be lots of picky parts that have to be disassembled and re-assembled just right and in the proper order. Tightening a spring on a floppy drive head took my friend (a trained engineer) and me at least an hour, and although the drive worked perfectly when we were done, it only lasted for a week. Apple can’t do that level of repair or people would be really upset.

So only a small fraction of damaged components end up fixed. Even the ones Apple could return to the original manufacturer wouldn’t be fixed – that company would send out a replacement after throwing the damaged unit away. The exception to this composting process is keyboards, which Apple (and possibly your dealer) usually does fix and reuse because the problems are usually simple, mechanical, and on a large enough scale to make repair easy and accurate.

The external cases are almost impossible to repair since they are generally molded plastic (although the IIvx and Centris 650 share a metal case), and there’s nothing to do with them but melt them down. You may as well turn any extra cases into avant garde art.

Apple treats boards, which include video cards, the motherboard, and any daughterboards such as those in the PowerBooks (why are boards always feminine?), differently. Apple tries to fix them because the costs often work out in favor of repair. Problems like damaged edge connectors may not be fixed, since that usually indicates damage to the board as a whole. If a single chip fails, though, Apple often replaces that chip, making sure the rest of the board works properly in the process, and then puts that board into circulation as a service part. No repaired boards are used in new Macs. If a board is beyond repair, Apple recovers certain parts, such as the expensive CPU and the ROM chips, but RAM chips, resistors, and the like cost too much to desolder and test for reuse.

As board size decreases, repair becomes less likely because the small, delicate parts are difficult to fix quickly and accurately. Apple repairs some PowerBook board failures, but the percentage is smaller than with desktop systems. Handheld devices like the Newton will probably never be repaired in favor of board replacement.

When it comes right down it, Apple justifies repair policies with a resounding "Because!" To read into that further, we see repair as a costly and legislated process that users want (companies must keep computer repair parts for at least five, and possibly seven years after discontinuing the machine). Since Apple is a business, they make business decisions that may make no sense except when looking at the bottom line. Apple could handle repair differently, but they feel they would lose money. The economics are different between the corporate and personal scales, which is why it makes sense for you to get a $10 chip repaired for $50 with labor, as opposed to paying $400 for a new unit. You can and should do that, but you shouldn’t expect Apple to do it. A third party can make money at it, Apple can’t.

Interestingly, I’ve read rumors about Apple doing on-site repair starting this spring. Like the Performas, desktop Macs sold in the U.S. would come with free, one-year, on-site service, though PowerBooks would have to be mailed to Apple or serviced at a dealer authorized to repair PowerBooks. Such a policy would undoubtedly come in response to moves by major PC clone vendors to provide similar services. I wonder how such a repair service would work for home Macs? If you work all day outside your home, it does no good to have someone appear at your house during business hours to fix your Mac. Of course, this repair policy might cheese off authorized dealers who would lose repair revenue, so I’d like to see Apple work with dealers so that the dealer could hire technicians to work evenings and weekends, or allow users to bring damaged Macs into the store, or offer a free pickup and delivery service.

Information from:

Related articles:
MacWEEK — 01-Mar-93, Vol. 7, #9, pg. 1

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