Whilst waiting for my iBook to come back, I decided to buy a new one with the intention of selling the old one when it came back. It didn’t go well. So I wrote a long letter to Apple’s European HQ in Ireland. You can read it below:

Last year, I purchased my first Apple computer, a G3 iBook. I took a chance in buying it, as I had had little firsthand experience of OS X up to that point. My decision was based almost entirely on word of mouth from people whose opinions I respect. The combination of a Unix-based system with a modern user interface, commercial application support, and beautiful, well-engineered hardware that worked with the operating system was compelling.

I made the right decision. I was extraordinarily satisfied with my new computer. It was genuinely portable with its low weight and long-lasting battery. OS X was a joy to use. I was able to install Unix utilities that greatly facilitated my work as a software engineer.

Indeed, not only was I content to use my iBook, I also attempted to spread the word by communicating this satisfaction to my colleagues, friends, and family. Some of them had never used an Apple machine before, but were encouraged to consider the Mac platform as a possibility for future purchases.

However, I am writing to you out of a frustration that derives entirely from my recent dealings with Apple, and one that has caused me to seriously consider whether the additional expense and occasional inconvenience of dealing with a minority platform is worthwhile.

Recently, my iBook started to exhibit display anomalies combined with random crashes. This quickly worsened into the consistent failure that indicates the infamous iBook logic board problem. I am very disappointed with the poor manufacturing standards that led to this. I had always mentally associated Apple with high quality hardware and was pleased to pay a small price premium on this understanding, so this kind of failure was particularly disappointing. Nonetheless, I am grateful that Apple has acknowledged the problem and moved to offer a repair programme for affected users. I therefore telephoned Apple’s European division to arrange the repair. I was informed that a special box would be sent to me in which I could return my iBook for repair.

A week later, I was still waiting, so I called again. The original dispatch had, I learned, been cancelled for an unknown reason. So it was rearranged, and I waited once more. After three days, I called to check, to discover that the dispatch had, once again, failed. However, on this occasion, a very helpful assistant assured me that she would monitor the process this time. The box arrived the next day, and I sent off my iBook to be repaired.

The turnaround time for the repair was commendably fast, as I had my computer back in three working days. Unfortunately, my satisfaction quickly evaporated when I discovered that it had been downgraded by way of repair. It went away as 900 MHz, and came back as 800 MHz. I quickly called to complain and to arrange for its restoration to the original speed.

My iBook was built to order, and I have the original documentation stating its specification—as, I am sure, does Apple: it was registered and 12.1/900/128/60G/COMBO is printed on the original warranty. I was, frankly, offended by the surly representative with whom I spoke. Although he was careful to say that he didn’t not trust me, his attitude and insistence that he must first check with the repair centre in the Netherlands did not give a good impression. A little contrition would have been appreciated; even better would have been recognition that it was a simple—and entirely understandable—mistake at the repair centre. I was instructed to wait for a phone call from Apple to inform me of when I could return my computer.

That call did not come; when I called, I was told that they had acknowledged the mistake and that a box would shortly be dispatched. And so I sent my iBook away for the second time.

The following week, it came back. This time, it worked, and the processor was the original 900 MHz. I was almost happy, until I looked closely at the computer. The entire bottom half of the computer was excessively, and visibly, bowed. The case bent away from the screen near the hinge, and nearly touched the tabletop underneath. I assume that the metal chassis had been bent—although I am at a loss to explain what singular incompetence could have achieved this. In any case, such distortion is not healthy for the internal components, as it must inevitably exert significant strain on boards, cables, and connectors.

My iBook thus returned for its third holiday to the Netherlands. At the time of writing, it is still there. I hope that it will come back in good condition; in truth, I do not have much faith that it will. Having been without it for about a month, I decided that it would be useful to buy another notebook computer, both as an upgrade and to ensure that I would have a backup in the future.

I debated whether to buy another Apple notebook or one from a different manufacturer. As I mentioned previously, I enjoy using Apple’s hardware and operating system. On the other hand, my unhappy experience of what happens when things go wrong gave me pause. However, coincidentally, the iBook range was renewed last week, becoming even better value.

I decided to buy a new iBook. Portability is important to me, so it had to be a 12” model. 30 GB is not enough disk space, so I decided to upgrade that to 60 GB. I wanted an internal Bluetooth module. The final—and most important—detail was the keyboard. Ideally, I should like a US ANSI keyboard due to personal preference (the shift and enter keys are close when touch-typing, I am familiar with it, and it works very well for entering other languages that I use in my daily work). Unfortunately, Apple do not offer the ANSI layout anywhere in Europe, even as a build-to-order option. Quite why this is, I am not sure. When I bought my previous iBook in Japan, I was able to select an ANSI keyboard as a build-to-order configuration. However, the “International English” layout is available as an option on the Belgian store’s web page, and so I chose that: it is at least QWERTY.

I called the Apple Store in Belgium and ordered a machine to these specifications. I checked several times that I would be getting an English keyboard. Satisfied that this was the case, and that everything was to my satisfaction, I placed the order. My confirmation email soon arrived with the order details, including, to my dismay, a local (i.e. Belgian) keyboard.

Upon calling again to check this anomaly, I discovered that a custom keyboard is only available on a non-custom machine. This limitation was not indicated on the website, and the operator who took my order by telephone also seemed unaware of it. Obviously, Apple’s interpretation of the word custom differs from mine. I find this arbitrary restriction confusing—and the automatic but silent changing of my keyboard layout inexcusable. Since I am not prepared to accept a Belgian AZERTY keyboard, I had no alternative but to cancel the order, to both my and Apple’s loss.

But here is the curious thing: Apple’s European operation appears to be integrated at a continent-wide level. If I call the Belgian number, a French operator answers; if I call the UK number, the operator is in Ireland. I can call the Irish number, speak to a Dutch customer service agent, and ship my machine from Belgium to the Netherlands for repair. I checked the German site to find the address in Cork. A few hundred kilometres away, in the UK, I could easily obtain a machine to the specifications that I have outlined above. And yet, for something as trivial as the keyboard layout, which can be swapped without even opening the machine, unnecessary barriers are put in place to prevent me from buying the one I want.

To be honest, I am beginning to wonder whether Apple wants me as a customer. And I am certainly re-evaluating whether I want to be an Apple customer. Is it for broad software support? No. Is it for the reliability? Not any more. Is it for the quick and efficient repair service? Not based on my experience. Is it for the build-to-order options? Not if I can’t get them.

Why would I ever want to buy another Apple machine? Moreover, why would I ever recommend one to anyone else? At the moment, if asked my opinion of Apple, I should have to say, “Great operating system; dodgy quality control; lousy service.”

I shall, in the near future, be buying a new notebook computer. Will it be a Mac? Perhaps you can tell me.