When new iPhones go bad

This past Tuesday, I was a man on a mission. My mission, which for work-related reasons I had no choice but to accept, was to buy an iPhone 3GS. A 32GB 3GS, preferably in black if I could get it. I'd heard horror stories from friends of mine of six- to eight-week waits from the carriers, and that was time I didn't have to wait without one. But surely Apple itself would have at least one, twelve or so weeks after the launch, right? I headed into Apple's flagship Sydney Store to find out.

Ten minutes later — eight of which were spent waiting in line behind a rather confused chap who actually wanted an iPhone with a plan, rather than an unlocked model — I walked out with a shiny shrink-wrapped package and a significant hole in my bank balance. Result!

Or so I thought.

I didn't actually get around to opening up my new toy until Wednesday night for activation. The moment I pulled it out of the box I heard something.

Click.

Click, in a tech sense, is rarely a good thing. Just ask anybody who used to use Iomega zip disks. My new iPhone had a rattle, and while I do have kids, they're beyond the age where rattles might amuse them. It certainly didn't amuse me.

On further inspection, the iPhone 3GS also had a somewhat recessed volume-up button, making it tough to adjust volume. Neither the rattle nor the volume made the iPhone impossible to use, but they made it less than ideal. For an out-of-the-box luxury product, it wasn't up to scratch.

So on Thursday morning I gave the Apple Store a quick ring to check that I'd be able to do a replacement on the spot — I live about a hour's train ride from the store, so it's not desirable to turn up only to be told they're out of stock. Not a problem, I was told, come right in. At least I figured it'd give me a chance to check out what Apple's customer support is actually like. (It's one of the perils of writing about Apple, in that you don't always get the "consumer" experience, but rather the pre-manufactured “journalist” one.) I wasn't playing any kind of "I'm a journalist, gimme!" card though. I'd heard both good things and some truly awful horror stories. How would my experience work out?

I headed in, and this time I wasn't there for just ten minutes. Apple's replacement strategy is, I've got to say, a little curious. I could have taken a credit card refund for the dodgy phone on the spot, but then I'd have to wait until it cleared back into my account before I could afford to “buy” a new one, unless I "happened" to have enough already in my account to afford a second phone on the spot. Sadly, journalism isn't a job that pays so well that iPhone purchases are a casual affair — so that was a non-starter. The alternative? They'd give me a rather hefty gift card downstairs as a refund, and then I could head upstairs and "buy" a new one.

I somewhat get that Apple needs to track these things, but given I'm dealing with the same company upstairs as downstairs — it's not like the Apple Store is franchised out by section — it strikes me as an odd choice. Given I was given a physical gift card, it's also perhaps not the most environmentally friendly approach. Finally, it was also a bit slow, as the smiling salesperson (as per Apple rule #2374: Employees must adopt a Joker-like grin at all times) had to re-process my gift card as a refund and check once more that they had stock.

(As an aside, something that surprised me was that they were running critically low of one model: the white iPhone 32GB 3GS, which I'd always figured would be less popular as white tends to discolour over time and can look a bit garish, especially as the screen's still going to be black. Obviously, that shows what I know about people's style choices.)

While I waited, I glanced across at the activation desks. For those who aren't au fait with buying an iPhone directly from Apple, you've got two choices. Either buy it outright (which I was doing) for a set sum and deal with any plan issues later, or sign up with one of Apple's carrier partners, who have a desk set up with staff to process that. Signing up for an iPhone is just as slow as signing up for any other mobile phone plan, so the staff at the activation desk always seem rather busy whenever I've been in there.

I glanced over, and was somewhat surprised to see what they were using to process the applications of folks wanting on-plan iPhones. Yes, the hardware was Mac — iMacs, in fact — but they were running Internet Explorer. If there's one place you don't expect to see Internet Explorer running, it's in the middle of the biggest Apple Store in Australia.

I'm guessing here, but I presume it's that the carrier account-creation web sites aren't standards-specific, and rely on some bit of IE (probably IE6) trickery to work properly. It also took a second or two for my brain to catch up to on one other factor. There's no Mac version of IE of course, but these iMacs weren't running Windows via Apple's own Boot Camp, but rather a virtualised desktop. I was too far away to work out which once, but it's interesting to see Apple using a third-party solution rather than its own in-house product there.

In any case, I've now got a non-clicky, volume-variable iPhone 3GS, and I've got to admit I'm happy enough with the service provided to someone who was just another punter in off the street.

What's your Apple support experience been like? Discuss it with me at MacTheForum!

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