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PowerBook 170 Screams, er, Screens

A month or so back, I suddenly noticed on the nets all sorts of reports from PowerBook 170 owners whose screens had just broken. In every case, the person was complaining on the nets because the screen replacement is expensive, and Apple claimed that the user had abused the screen. In every case, the users swore up and down (right and left too) that they hadn’t damaged their screens in any way or treated their PowerBooks badly.

I was struck by the number of postings (not that many, but clumped together and from people who are generally respected on the nets as having more upstairs than six inches of that pink insulation), so I asked around a bit. I found out some information that is certainly not official and I doubt anyone at Apple would ever admit it was true. And, unfortunately, those of you with broken screens are probably still out of luck and pocket.

It seems that the manufacturer of the 170’s active matrix screens allegedly may have (notice the clever journalistic tactic of not actually accusing anyone of anything) etched a serial number into the corner of the glass of certain 170 screens. Needless to say, from a manufacturing standpoint, this is a major mistake, since once the surface of the glass is compromised, the screen is no longer perfect and is far more susceptible to mechanical stress. Rumor has it that that company will no longer supply screens to Apple, in part because they could never supply enough and possibly in part because of this alleged idiocy that affects some small number of PowerBook 170s. I haven’t heard of any problems with 180s, and the passive matrix screens don’t appear to be as fragile.

Based on information from several sources, I see numerous ways to look at this issue, the engineer, the Apple PR robot, and the consumer. Sounds like a bad joke already, doesn’t it?

The engineer would have to examine the hardware carefully and look at the failure rate to determine if there was in fact a design flaw, and perhaps there is one. However, remember that most "design flaws" come from marketing decisions (Rule 1) and remember too that all the world’s a marketing scheme (Rule 2). When push comes to shove and the screen breaks, we don’t know why, but it doesn’t happen to many people, so a design review will probably take more time than it’s worth. So once again, this is a case of an alleged design flaw that may or may not have been caused by an alleged marketing decision.

The Apple PR robot would have to make the situation look good, or at least not bad, for Apple, no matter what he or she might really think (Rule 3). That person would say that the failure rate is too minor to warrant any kind of recall or repair program, especially since Apple doesn’t make enough margin on machine to look into every complaint shared by X number of people where X is greater than one and less than some unspecified large number of angry consumers, all frothing at the mouth. Actually, the PR robot wouldn’t say anything like that, since PR robots can only respond to problems with "We can neither confirm nor deny such and such." (Rule 4). Can you imagine asking a nice simple question, like "Oh, did you take out the garbage this morning?" Sheesh.

The consumer would of course be mad as hell (Rule 5), having purchased an expensive computer system that is obviously a piece of junk and what kind of nerve does Apple have selling such garbage anyway when they know full well (you can tell because of that "neither confirm or deny" trash) that those screens would break if you so much as looked at them wrong and I will damn well tell all of my friends and the entire network about it and I’m never going to buy anything from Apple again. Humph! What? I have to use Windows then? (Rule 6) You drive a hard bargain, Mr. Mephistopheles – damned if I do and damned if I don’t. I suppose that’s the price to pay for being on the cutting edge – as long as I’m bleeding, where do I sign for my new PowerBook 180c?

So that about sums it up. I see no path for complaint since so few people have been affected, and Apple won’t even admit that there’s a problem with the Malaysian mice after Liam Breck collected hundreds of reports. That would be a relatively cheap fix, unlike the active matrix screens, so I think we can rest assured that nothing will happen.

In general, it’s a good idea to minimize stresses on the screen when opening and closing PowerBooks. That means primarily that you should open and close the screen using two hands (or however many you have) on the lower half of the screen. Opening or closing the screen from one top corner is the worst from the stress level (and we don’t need our computers getting repetitive stress injuries either!).

Oh, and there is a quiz. What was Rule 2? Discuss.

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