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Apple’s International Obfuscation

Many are the joys of life in New Zealand, but frustrations occasionally arise; among them is an absence of Apple retail stores. Authorised resellers abound, but Apple itself has only made it as far as Australia, and so my options for repair of my Apple kit are limited. Recently, my iPhone 4S has been draining its battery more quickly than seems reasonable, but apart from the usual software tweaks (turning off Bluetooth, reducing the frequency of Mail checks, disabling unnecessary location services, shutting down unnecessary background notifications, and so on), there wasn’t much I could do.

So on a recent trip back to Manchester, UK, I took the opportunity to bring my iPhone 4S in to Arndale Centre’s Apple Store. The Genius who looked at it told me that my battery usage was, as I had suspected, excessive, but also said that the problem, according to his diagnostic software, lay not in the battery, which was behaving itself. According to the work authorisation he completed, “behaviour scan indicates that there is no issue with battery but looking at the iPhone diags it appears the phone is draining the battery too quickly.” His proposed solution: “Replacing in warranty for possible component issues with the phone (not the battery itself).”

Excellent, I thought — a quick switch-out of old for new, and when I get home to New Zealand, I’ll restore my new iPhone from an iTunes backup and all will be well. The Genius started tapping away at his laptop, scowled, and disappeared into the back — never a good sign. Ten minutes later, he came back to the Genius Bar and explained that, while he would very much like to be able to give me a new iPhone, he couldn’t — he had to replace like with like, and he couldn’t replace a Kiwi iPhone with an English one. “But they’re the same thing, surely,” I protested. “No,” he replied, “they have different antennae.”

Now it was my turn to scowl. He explained to me that Apple sells iPhones in three different regions — the United States is in one region, the UK is in a second, and New Zealand a third. “Really,” I said, “what could be different?” When I moved to New Zealand from the United States in 2009, I brought my iPhone 3G with me, and it worked just fine; I gather it’s still working fine for the mate I sold it to when I upgraded to a 3GS. My wife took her New Zealand-bought 3GS to the States and used it without any problems, and our daughter, similarly, has used her iPhone 4 in both countries. On the way from New Zealand to England, I had layovers in Australia and Singapore, and my iPhone 4S, bought in New Zealand, worked as well in those countries as it did in both New Zealand and the UK.

“What could possibly be so different that a straight swap isn’t possible?” I asked. “Well,” he replied, “there are different kinds of networks.” “Yes,” I said, “I know, and all of these markets use GSM phones — such as the iPhone 4S.” “Ah,” came his reply, “but there’s also CDMA.”

I sighed; inwardly I wept a little. Knowing when to give in, I asked him to send me the work authorisation by email, which he did — he also helpfully printed me a copy. I could have stood and argued further, but I could see he had no part number available on his MacBook’s database for a foreign iPhone, and so I simply wasn’t getting a new one today. Besides, my brother was waiting outside to take me out for a curry. “You could have out-geeked them,” he remarked later as I ate my chicken korma; indeed, I thought.

So the next afternoon I spent some time — an hour, almost — on the phone with Apple support. I dialed a toll-free New Zealand number, and found myself speaking to a customer support rep with a distinctly Australian accent. I explained the problem to him, and he told me there wouldn’t be a problem. Either I could send Apple my iPhone, and they would replace it, or I could choose the Express option — they would send me an iPhone and a box in which I could return my old one. “That sounds good,” I said, “let’s do that.”

But there was, of course, a catch. There always is, isn’t there? In order to use the Express option, Apple would have to put a hold on my credit card. For the full purchase price of a new iPhone — NZ$1199. “No,” I said, “that’s not going to work. I would just like a new iPhone sent to me, without having to surrender my current iPhone first.”

I was put through to Matt. Matt, like most call-centre workers, has no surname. All I know is that he was the senior advisor at Apple’s call centre in Brisbane, Australia. I explained to him that I was unwilling to surrender well over a thousand dollars to Apple (yes, I know, it’s only a hold, but it’s a thousand dollars that I can’t access while the hold is there; from my end there’s no practical or functional difference, and for a teacher like me, that’s a significant chunk of change to have tied up). According to Matt, if Apple simply sent out a replacement iPhone without requiring a $1200 bond, the customer would have no incentive to return the other iPhone. Aside from the fact that one of them is broken, which is why it’s being replaced in the first place, I pointed out that this shows a complete, and disappointing, lack of trust in customers. “People,” I was told, “aren’t working off trust in business any more.” (Incidentally, when I mentioned for the fifth time that I would be writing an article about my experience, Matt stressed that he wasn’t speaking for Apple at this point.)

I’m old enough to know that not everyone is as honest as I am. I’m not so naive as to imagine that nobody would ever take advantage of this kind of opportunity, but, as I pointed out to Matt the Senior Advisor, this was a very one-sided requirement — if I were to send my phone to Apple and then have them send me a replacement, there would be no comparable burden placed on Apple. I, apparently, would have to work off trust. Frankly, I was not happy — rightly or wrongly, I expect better from Apple — but at this point I realised that I would not be getting any kind of satisfaction from Matt on this score, I decided to change tack, and this is where the fun really began.

Since I had a senior advisor on the line, I thought I would try to extract a little more technical information regarding localised iPhones. The problem, I was told, was that there were hardware issues. Knowing a handwave when I hear one — I’m a high-school physics teacher, for heaven’s sake — I wasn’t going to let this pass. Really, I asked, what kind of hardware differences? Matt reiterated the Manchester Genius’s line that Apple sells iPhones in three different regions, the details of which were not forthcoming, and each had its own requirements. I pressed for examples. China was offered as an example; the Chinese government require Wi-Fi to be disabled, apparently, so they can control what Web sites their people visit.

I understand that China is a special case in this discussion; the civil servants of the People’s Republic are even bigger control freaks than Apple. But this still didn’t explain why I couldn’t be issued with a replacement, in Manchester, for my antipodean phone. “Well,” Matt said, “sometimes phones need special software to be installed on their hardware.” I pointed out that I can handle big words like “firmware.” Matt then explained that, for example, India requires that FaceTime be disabled. Fascinating, I thought, but this can be dealt with, and presumably is, through firmware changes. I mentioned that when I bought my iPhone 3GS in New Zealand and first activated it, one of the steps in the activation process reported by iTunes was “Updating carrier settings;” in that case, MMS messaging was being enabled (if memory serves, AT&T only supported SMS texts at the time) while visual voicemail was being disabled (Vodafone NZ still doesn’t support it, a massive disappointment). This was all handled through firmware — one model of iPhone, clearly, was being shipped to all markets, and then being fine-tuned to suit the needs, and weaknesses, of each carrier.

(In the interests of accuracy, I decided to confirm Matt’s statement about FaceTime in India. His grasp of the situation was a little weak; the India section of Apple’s Web site touts FaceTime as one of the standout features of the iPhone 4S. To be fair, FaceTime is in fact unavailable in Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, and for a time was unavailable in Egypt, Jordan, and Qatar.)

Matt had yet to give me a compelling reason for differences in hardware between my two home countries. I asked again about the different antennae, and was told that my iPhone 4S might have a different antenna to enable it to handle 4G networks. At this point I sat up and paid very, very close attention — was I about to score a massive scoop? Was Matt about to leak to me news that my iPhone 4S could handle true 4G networking (whatever that might be)? I asked him for more details of this massive development, but this was clearly nothing but another attempt to handwave me away. So I pressed again. “What,” I asked Matt, “was the difference in hardware between an iPhone 4S bought in Auckland and one sold in Manchester?” “There are differences,” he replied. “What are they?” I asked. “Could you please give me a single example of a hardware — not a firmware, not a “software built into hardware,” but a hardware — difference between a British iPhone and a Kiwi iPhone?”

None, unsurprisingly, was forthcoming. Apple’s Web sites for the three countries in question — their American, British and New Zealand sites — all offer identical tech specs for the iPhone 4S. It is, all three claim, a “World Phone” supporting UMTS/HSDPA/HSUPA (850, 900, 1900, 2100 MHz); GSM/EDGE (850, 900, 1800, 1900 MHz); and CDMA EV-DO Rev. A (800, 1900 MHz). Same frequencies, same technologies. I’m not the world’s leading authority on cellular, but there seems to be no meaningful difference. I’m willing — in fact at this point I’d be happy — to be corrected on this, but as far as I can tell, the only difference between the various devices is the part number.

I’ve used Apple equipment since the late 1980s — possibly since before the Manchester Genius and Matt were even born. I’ve written about Apple for several years, I’ve been an Apple-certified consultant, I’ve even worked for Apple. But this phone call with Matt the Senior Advisor was one of the most frustrating Apple experiences I’ve ever had. The lack of trust shown by Apple’s support team for a territory that doesn’t have a local Apple retail presence is disappointing, but, I suppose, is little more than a sign of the times. More annoying, though, was Apple’s intransigent part-numbering system that prevented the Manchester Genius from replacing like with like when only part numbers differed.

But what bothers me most about this entire interaction has been the dismissive, faintly patronising attempts by everyone I’ve spoken with to blind me with science. Even after I made it quite abundantly clear that I am quite reasonably techno-literate, I still encountered the hand-wavy “Oh, it’s technical, sonny” answers that added up to little more than, “Look, we’re not going to tell you anything.” Or, if I were to be charitable, I could assume simply that neither Manchester Genius nor Matt the Senior Advisor really knew what they were talking about in the slightest, and were just grasping at jargon straws to get me off the line rather than admitting their ignorance.

Either way, Apple, I expect better.

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