An Artist's Frozen Macintosh
© 2013 Stan Yack

Susan and Bill are both professional artists, and they could write off the cost of a new system against their commissions, so in the summer of 1999 they paid full price at an Apple-authorized retail store for a top-of-the line Macintosh (a "G3"). But that didn't prevent an immediate attack by digital tigers.

The G3 was their second computer, replacing an old 386-based PC running Windows 3.1 which they had used for word processing, accounting, and email. Before they'd picked up their new computer they asked me to tell them how a Mac would differ from their old Windows system. I explained the differences, and predicted that "You'll like it a lot". I'm sorry to say I was wrong.

They set up their Macintosh and began using it right away. (The set up involved little more than connecting the cables; Macs typically have all their "drivers" preinstalled, and don't requires the software installations common on new Windows systems) But just a couple of hours later, Susan tried to print the word processing document she'd been editing, and the computer froze, not responding to any normal action she took (like pressing a key, moving the mouse, clicking). Susan had encountered misbehaving computers before (she'd just replaced an old Windows 3.1 system), so she just rebooted and picked up where she'd left off (with her latest saved version of the document). The next day, Bill tried out the new system, and after getting his ISP connection set up, used a Web browser to do his first trawling around the Internet with his new computer ... and the Mac failed again. But this time it didn't just freeze: it rebooted itself! This was not something they expected to have happen with a brand new computer. They called me for help, and I arrived to step into my role of technological demystifier. "What were you doing when the problems occured?", I asked with my best desk-side manner. "We were just browsing a website, or printing a document," they replied.

The disastrous lockups and unprovoked reboots while performing simple tasks like "browsing a website, or printing a document" was clear evidence that the system was not working properly. And barely out of the box, with only a couple of standard software components like Norton Anti-Virus installed, the system's problems had to be congenital: the Mac's failures could not have been caused by anything that Bill had done. I wanted to run some of the diagnostic tools in my little black software bag; but those tools were all on diskettes, and Bill's new state of the art Macintosh didn't include anything so old-fashioned as a diskette drive. So all I could do was uninstall the software he'd added to the virgin computer, and reinstall the original MacOS system software (using the computer's CD drive). Almost immediately after I'd done that, the system froze while I was opening a folder on the desktop.

With Norton Antivirus uninstalled, the system contained only Apple software. From the symptoms, my judgment was that the hardware was faulty, that their Macintosh was a lemon disguised as an apple; but of course I was not able to do much to confirm that diagnosis. I told Bill to take the computer back to the store where he bought it and ask them diagnose and fix the problem. I knew the sales staff would have a much tougher time mystifying me with technical mumbo-jumbo, so I offered Bill my services as an intermediary. But Bill declined my offer. He packed up his computer, carted it back to the store, and talked to them himself.

At the store a repairman listened impatiently to Bill's polite description, and then blaimed him for the problem (and indirectly me) by saying "I don't know what you or your friend [that's me] might have done to corrupt the system, so we'll have to reinitialize your hard disk and rebuild the system from scratch". Bill told the repairman to go ahead and do whatever he thought was necessary to fix the problem. Susan and Bill hadn't transferred anything from their old PC, and of course they hadn't able create much new during the two days they'd had their new Mac, so they wouldn't lose much from a hard disk reinitialization. (If they had been collectors of digital files for as long as I have, it would have been a different story!)

In a couple of days Bill picked up his rebuilt system, and was more than a bit surprised to get a $125 bill for rebuilding the system's hard disk, just three days into his one year warrantee. He paid the bribe, carried the computer home, set it up, connected to the Internet, and ... after a few minutes of web browsing it froze again.

When he called me, I told him straightaway to take his computer back to the store and demand that they fix his computer or refund his money. He packed it up again, lugged it back to the store, and gave them that ultimatum (in less angry terms, I'm sure). After keeping the computer for another week, the technician reported that "our tests can detect no problem" which means that "there's nothing wrong with it." Bill lugged home the computer, set it up, and while he was waiting for a web page to display it froze.

What could he do now? He was tired of carting the obviously defective product back and forth to the store. Well, he had just read about 1-800-SOS-APPLE, a new call centre with truly helpful people who would listen to your problems with Apple products. The contact Bill reached listened to his story politely, asked some questions, listened some more, asked more questions, and while on the phone directed Bill to try a few things with his computer (which didn't freeze while they were talking). At the end of all that, the Apple rep told Bill that there was no simple way to solve his problem, because "sometimes computers just crash, and there's nothing you can do but reboot." To that I would add: "Sure that happens; when the computer is defective!"

In my essay Myths About Computers I have something to say about the myth, which is often used as armour by unhelpful service technicians, that "most computer failures are caused by computer users".

I told Bill that armed with his official Apple diagnosis he should return his "lemon" to the store and insist on an immediate refund. If they refused, he should report the store to Apple and wait for Apple to come down hard on them. But as he told me years later, he didn't do that:

We never did get the problem with our Mac G3 fixed.

Sometime after you helped us I got another Mac, nominally because Susan and I were sharing the same computer, but perhaps partly because that one we did have was not working right. Susan kept it for a number of years. She continued to have problems and asked a friend of our son who was a computer whiz to look at it. He took all the software off of it and re-installed it, as well as changing or updating the operating system.

That didn't help, and the computer still froze on a regular basis for no reason. I was a bit oblivious to the problem by this time, since I was no longer using that computer, but the whole problem was driving Susan nuts. We continued to think that it was somehow our fault, especially as we had been told by the technicians that there was no problem.

Eventually Susan got a Mac notebook and gave the old Mac to a friend, who also had problems with it. (Surprise!) She apparently gave it away to someone else, who is probably even now struggling with the problem.

I suppose the moral is that you should stand firm in your rejection of a lemon, but as an inexperienced user of computers, it is hard to insist that there is a problem when all the sales agent's technicians are saying there isn't.

I now use a Fujitsu notebook and Susan is still using her Mac notebook that replaced our G3.

Have you ever had a computer fail as badly as Bill's did? Did you get a run-around from the vendor?

Click here to read my advice for what you can do to prepare for your encounters with the not necessarily helpful people at the call centre, or here to read about a way to keep yourself calm when they're "helping" you.

Stan Yack
Instructional Designer and Softsmith