You’ve undoubtedly been in this situation before. Something goes wrong with your Mac, you work through the standard troubleshooting, search the Internet for additional information, try a few additional wacky ideas, and finally call Apple’s technical support. Then you end up talking to some poor tech support person who probably has only a few months of experience, is desperately trying to search the support database, and who is probably earning only $12 per hour. "Yes," you reply wearily after waiting on hold for 25 minutes, "I’ve tried restarting the Mac and rebuilding the Desktop. I’m trying to find out if you’ve seen any Mac OS X crashes related to interactions with some Apple-supplied USB devices that work fine in Mac OS 9."
At long last, Apple has moved to address this annoying and expensive situation with the Virtual Genius Bar, staffed by Apple’s most experienced Mac support engineers, and accessible only to those users who really do know what they’re talking about. Access to the Virtual Genius Bar will be protected by a combination of an online "Genius Test" of Macintosh knowledge and a situation-specific "Just Checking" quiz that requires users to acknowledge that they’ve worked through basic troubleshooting. Apple stores the Genius Test results with your Apple ID; questions will be added to the Genius Test every so often to make sure those who have passed the test stay up-to-date on their knowledge. It’s also not just a pass-fail test – you’ll actually get a Genius rating.
Calling the tech support engineers at the Virtual Genius Bar requires connecting to Apple’s support Web site with your Apple ID, making sure your Genius Test rating is up-to-date, and completing a Just Checking quiz for the appropriate topic area. You then receive an incident-specific password code that, when entered after calling Apple’s standard support phone number (800/275-2273), routes your call to the Virtual Genius Bar queue. As with Apple’s existing AppleCare SupportLine, calls are free for the first 90 days; afterwards they cost $50 per incident.
Apple, of course, prefers customers use electronic forms of support, and to further that end, the Virtual Genius Bar has a Web-based component as well. Anyone can read the Virtual Genius Bar discussion forums, but only those who have passed the Genius Test have posting privileges, which significantly increases the likelihood that answers from other users will be helpful (and Genius ratings will be shown with answers). Even better, the Virtual Genius Bar support engineers will monitor and participate in these discussion forums regularly. Other planned tweaks include letting the Virtual Genius Bar support folks delete posts and modify Genius ratings, add links to and from Knowledge Base articles, and special filter options that will show only answers from Apple engineers or users with sufficiently high Genius ratings. Reportedly, Virtual Genius Bar support engineers will also have the option of taking an incident to private email if that would prove more efficient, although I’ll believe that when I see it.
Nevertheless, it’s extremely heartening to see Apple acknowledging the knowledge and experience of its user base. Along with the obvious benefit to users frustrated by working with inexperienced support engineers, Apple stands to benefit as well. Support calls should be shorter, difficult questions should go directly to qualified support engineers, and the searchable archive of the discussions could become an excellent support tool in its own right.