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Spring Forward, Fail Back: Apple Still Can’t Tell Time

Leap years have been a fixture of the Julian calendar since it was put into effect in 45 BCE. A recent customer service failure shows Apple still isn’t quite clear on the concept.

It started innocuously enough. The rear-facing camera and flashlight on my older kid’s hand-me-down iPhone 8 Plus suddenly stopped working. I scheduled an Apple Store appointment for the next day. Once there, an Apple employee rapidly confirmed the problem, said the part was in stock, and estimated that the repair might take an hour.

The only problem? Apple’s internal systems showed that the iPhone’s warranty had expired 2 days earlier, on 29 February 2020.

However, it shouldn’t have expired at all—I had seen an $8.80 charge appear on that date for the recurring monthly extension of AppleCare+. Apple began offering an indefinite extension of AppleCare late last year (see “Is Your AppleCare+ Expiring? You Can Now Renew It,” 19 September 2019). I had purchased AppleCare+ for this iPhone 8 Plus, and when I upgraded to an iPhone 11 Pro for research purposes (“Sure, dad, for research…”) my older kid got the iPhone 8 Plus and its ongoing warranty.

I showed the Apple Store guy my credit card app, but the charge appeared as “Pending” and didn’t include a reference to AppleCare+, just Apple. He asked if I had a receipt, but I download all my email instead of storing it on a server, so I couldn’t produce one on my iPhone. But surely Apple would know about my AppleCare+ extension—an employee at an Apple Store should be able to check, no?

He went off to consult and came back. No luck. He said as long as the records he could access didn’t show the warranty was active and I didn’t have a receipt in hand, I’d either have to pay for the repair or come back.

I suspected the leap day. A 20-minute call to Apple Support later confirmed my suspicion. A person in billing there was able to verify that my warranty was active and confirm the charge was pending but not rejected. He said that the Apple Store should have honored the warranty, and noted that problems like mine were a common call for the day, due to a billing error clearly caused by leap day.

Apple has long had trouble with handling dates. In just the last few years, the 1970 date bug bricked iOS devices when it cropped up in early 2016, the iOS reset loop bug seemed date-related in December 2017, Macs suffered from the High Sierra wrong time zone bug, and Mac OS 8’s Y2K20 bug earlier this year threatened to cast computers running that version into the permanent past. Those are just Apple’s recent date-related blunders.

This particular problem would appear to be the fault of Apple’s back-end computer systems. Based on how fragile and inflexible everything is, I have a nagging suspicion that Apple still relies on ancient WebObjects code powered by exhausted hamsters. Somehow, Apple Store employees can’t see the system that Apple Support phone reps can, nor can they retrieve a receipt sent to me as a customer. It’s weird for an Apple employee to ask me for a receipt generated in the company’s own system.

But the true issue is empowering employees to provide exemplary customer service. Apple doesn’t trust its store employees enough to give them the authority to say, “You know what, this is clearly messed up, so we’re going to authorize the repair, and if it turns out there’s a problem, we’re going to own that, too. We trust you, and we can see you’ve spent [a number that must exceed $100,000 after 34 years of buying Apple products] with us. So let’s go ahead and make you happy since it’s probably a glitch. Leap day! What a world!”

Just a few days ago, my wife and I, frustrated with United Airlines’ apparently broken system for booking international flights with frequent-flyer miles, spent an hour on the phone with the greatest customer service person in the world. When he heard our problem, he waived the $25-per-ticket phone fee, then proceeded to replicate our issue. Because it was United’s fault that we couldn’t complete an online booking, he put us onto flights with a similar route but that consumed far more miles (about 60% more) than the ones we could see on the site, but not book. We weren’t “charged” extra miles or additional fees, however.

United trusted this phone support rep much more than Apple trusts its store employees. And, yes, we got the United rep’s name and details, wrote a glowing recommendation email, and received a personal reply from his managers.

Apple’s tech support is routinely rated among the best in the industry because of how it solves problems. It would be nice if Apple extended trust and support to all its employees such that they could solve problems like this one, rather than leaving me and many others who ran afoul of a leap day bug unhappy.

When I got home from my failed appointment, I checked my locally stored mail. Sure enough, there was a receipt that showed me paid up through 30 March 2020.

AppleCare receipt
Apple sent me this receipt, but the Apple Store had no way to confirm it.

I was also able to find another place the Apple Store employee hadn’t thought to have me look: in Settings > Your Name > Subscriptions on my account, not my kid’s, as I was paying for the warranty. That screen also showed the correct expiration.

My wife returned to the Apple Store the next day with two other phones needing service, the printed receipt, and a text from me showing the active subscription. It still required more than 10 minutes for her to convince them, even after she brought me in via speakerphone. Eventually, they relented and agreed to repair the iPhone 8 Plus under AppleCare+. The best part? One of the techs checked his own phone and discovered that its warranty was marked as expired, too, even though he too had a pending credit card charge!

Why my iPhone can know the warranty is active when an Apple Store database doesn’t, only the deep innards of Apple’s hoary code could reveal. But what this experience really reveals is that there are bugs in both Apple’s code and in the company’s customer service policies.

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Comments About Spring Forward, Fail Back: Apple Still Can’t Tell Time

Notable Replies

  1. I worked for Apple when they changed their back-end accounting system (a third-party system whose vendor I don’t recall - sorry) at the beginning of this century. I remember the higher-ups in the chain singing the praises of how this new system would resolve the problems they were having paying commissions, etc. Of course, anyone who has actually been through an accounting system change-over knows how potentially disastrous this can be. Sure enough, when it actually went live, it was miserable for many of my colleagues. I would have thought the leap year thing wouldn’t even have been an issue (certainly not 20 years later!).

  2. This is the story the every decision made without the proper consultation of the people who use and maintain systems! Always. How terrible! Well, they apparently are still using it — or something that emulates it!

  3. Sounds like we should to keep a copy of the paid AC+ invoice pdf on the device it covers.

  4. I think you missed the part of the story at the end where my wife brought in the actual receipt and they still didn’t want to honor it because their systems are bad. But she eventually convinced them to see reason.

  5. Yes I missed that part. You said the store clerk went and consulted with someone, then came back. Did you ask to speak with his supervisor or the store manager? They have more authority/access than 1st level support. I’ve had to do this a few times to get a problem resolved (I always get the name of each level person I speak with. However, I AM surprised the store staff didn’t check Apple’s list of well-known Apple commentators/authors and then just fix the problem. :wink:

  6. More complicated! I was brief, but my wife showed them the receipt, which has the agreement number and serial number on it, among other details. They declined to honor the warranty. She got me on the phone. I was polite but incoherent apparently over the speakerphone. They agreed to discuss it. They went off for five minutes and came back and said, well, ok. If she hadn’t have been persistent, they probably would have sent her away! That was their plan.

    I’m not as well known these days, since I stopped writing the Seattle Times column years ago, and I try to make sure I never get special treatment as a journalist! (I’m sure you’re joking, but I don’t want special treatment—I want normal treatment to be great.)

  7. Yep, I was which was why I used the “wink” emoticon.
    I’d probably bring the incident to the attention of the manager saying that more training is obviously involved if the staff didn’t recognize an official Apple receipt. But at least it all worked out for you.

  8. “Based on how fragile and inflexible everything is, I have a nagging suspicion that Apple still relies on ancient WebObjects code powered by exhausted hamsters.”

    … Hey, Glenn! The WebObjects stuff was the good stuff! Yea, hamsters!

  9. Not all Apple “geniuses” are so difficult. Years ago I had a friend visiting form out of state; her Macbook Pro had a swelling battery that was obviously defective. I took her to a nearby Apple Store. The “genius” took a look at it and asked if we had the receipt for it, which was generally required for the repair program involved (bad battery replacement); we did not. Nevertheless, he said they had some batteries in the back; he took the MacBook Pro to and returned in 10 minutes, having replaced the bad battery with a good one. Best service I’ve ever had. Those batteries were dangerous. It left to themselves they would explode or simply catch fire. Knowing that I was very glad to get it replaced.

    That’s not to say that Apple Store staff are not encouraged to blow off a customer with a problem they can’t, or don’t want to, solve. But sometimes they deserve credit for the high customer service rating they get. I’ve had other good experiences in an Apple Store. Maybe I’m just lucky. :smile:

  10. It’s not just Apple, and it’s not just dates. The inability of major tech companies to foresee and/or fix what should be simple problems with everyday information continually blows my mind.

    I had an issue recently with an online ordering system for a web store I’d used many times before. It simply wouldn’t place the order—no visible error message either. After several attempts on three different devices, I finally found the problem: my phone number was formatted incorrectly (with parentheses around the area code instead of just dashes). The only indication that the phone number was the problem was that the field border was dark red instead of black, dark enough that the difference wasn’t obvious on my MBP (I didn’t catch it until I tried placing the order on my iPhone). (I was persistent because it was a one-day sale involving items I’d been waiting to see go on sale, and I didn’t want to miss the sale window waiting for a customer service response.)

    The thing is, I hadn’t made any changes to my contact information; the phone number was formatted exactly as the site had already filled it in from my account! I emailed customer service about it after I had completed my order, and they responded that they had recently made some back-end changes in their ordering system such that parentheses were no longer allowed in phone numbers.

    The fact that my existing stored phone number had not been converted to the new formatting requirements would suggest that many other, if not all, existing customers had the same issue. Yes, it’s a confluence of two problems (the actual formatting problem, and the lack of useful error messages), but I wonder how many potential sales were lost that day because other customers encountered the same problem and simply gave up.

  11. I’ve had similar problems with both the STANDARD phone number format (area code) and what I call the “NERD” format of area code-exchange number-individual number. Turned out the software only allowed the NUMBERS ONLY format 1234567890 yet still allowed the ENTRY of both the Standard & Nerd formats; it just wouldn’t let you send the form and didn’t give any indication of the format.

    Your actual main problem was the company implementing the new ordering system BEFORE they changed their customer database to comply with the new system.

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