I HAVEN’T GRIPED about a run of bad luck with Apple products for some time, because I haven’t experienced such a run in years. So I was due. So pretty much all the Apple products I own are now malfunctioning, each in its own special way—a way that interacts cunningly with the malfunction in another Apple product I own to prevent me from, say, accessing internet content, or getting photos out of my camera and onto a device where I can view and edit them.
The interlocking details of these curiously synchronous malfunctions are of little general interest, but the cultural assumptions surrounding their discussion may merit some small call on your attention.
People used to talk about the Zeldman Curse, meaning things went wrong with my Apple software or hardware that didn’t go wrong with anyone else’s. But that was never true, of course. Google any problem I wrote about back then, and you’d find lots of other people having the same problem, usually quietly, on an out-of-the-way Apple message board, which only rarely contained an actual, working solution.
Media-wise, Apple was always mum on these subjects—the one exception being 2010’s notorious iPhone 4 antenna problem which supposedly doomed Apple and the iPhone and of course did neither because it wasn’t really a big problem and it was easy to fix.
But those other things that sometimes went wildly wrong for some users of some Apple products? Those things, nice people didn’t talk about. As a community, Apple fans were Victorians when it came to malfunctions of the hardware or software body, and those who complained—like Victorians seeking sexual information—were to be shunned.
This ban on complaint never stopped me because my filters are different from yours, and because I needed the psychological release that came with writing more than I needed your approval.
The real meaning of Apple design
Now, we all know Apple is smart. Their sales pitch is design, but not in the “pretty” sense people who don’t know what design is think I mean when I say the word “design.”
Their stuff is pretty, but that surface prettiness is merely an objective correlative—an indicator, if you will—for the beauty and emotional satisfaction of a generally seamless computing experience. It’s the comparative ease of creating and managing a music library, not the attractiveness of the surrounding chrome, that makes people connect personally with iTunes. Like the best websites, Apple products anticipate what you will need to do, and make it easy for you to do it, thereby enabling you to focus your attention on the content with which you are engaged, instead of on the interface that facilitates your interaction. Interaction design. Experience design. That’s what Apple is brilliant at.
And even when the hardware is visually gorgeous—like the MacBook Air, my road machine as a frequent speaker—the real selling point isn’t that visual beauty; it’s the fact that this powerful computer weighs little more than a pad of paper. You can toss it in your handbag or backpack and run out the door. That whole deskbound computing experience? The Air freed you from it even before the iPad came along.
If a brand’s whole essence is bound up with good experience, it makes sense for the brand to handle bad experiences quietly and with skill. This Apple does in its stores. If something goes wrong with a piece of hardware, or if an individual piece of software is malfunctioning in ways you can’t fix after fifteen minutes with the Googles, you walk into the Apple store, and a smiling initiate fixes the software for you, or replaces your bum iPhone with a free new one. Walking out with a free new iPhone kind of makes you forget that you were angry at Apple for the problems of the iPhone you walked in with.
The house that Jack wired
But you can’t lug your apartment or your whole network routing setup to the Apple store when your MacBook Air says it can’t connect to the internet because another device is using its IP address (even though no device is). And you can’t plug into ethernet because the Air doesn’t support it. And if you bought that ethernet converter enabling you to plug an ethernet cable into your Air, that’s when you find out that most ethernet cables don’t actually fit into that thing Apple sold you for $50. You can’t bring the Air into the Apple store to be diagnosed and fixed because it connects beautifully to the internet over Wi-Fi everywhere but in your home. And that happened suddenly, after you hadn’t changed anything about your network.
And it’s not just you, because your colleague gets the same error message on his Apple computer in the design studio you share. And it isn’t the way you configured your networks, because you hired a guy to configure the one in your studio, while you configured the home one yourself, using only Apple hardware and software. And the guy you hired to wire your studio is competent, because that is what he does for a living, and has done for 20 years, as his bald head attests.
And you want the Air to connect to the internet because you want to get photos off your camera, and you can’t do that with your desktop Apple computer (an iMac) because iPhoto will not open in that computer. iPhoto will not open in that computer because your iPhoto library is corrupted, and the usual secret fixes for that problem (Command-Option open) do not work. Besides, the iPhoto library on your MacBook Air is also corrupted.
Your iMac is set to open Aperture when you connect your camera to it, but Aperture shares iPhoto’s library, so if you plug your camera into your iMac, Aperture spins uselessly and stops responding, just like iPhoto does.
You can sometimes force iPhoto to open on the Air by holding down Command-Option on launch, but if you did that, the photos would just sit there, because the Air cannot connect to the internet in your home. So you couldn’t share the photos on Flickr or Instagram or Facebook, and what would be the point of having taken them? And besides, the Air has no room for photos because the Air has no room on its little bitty drive. And you can’t edit photos on your Air because it’s a “light” computer by design. So even if iPhoto wasn’t broken on your Air, and even if it had room on its itty bitty drive, the best you could hope to do would be dump a bunch of photos into it and then not edit or share them.
The iMac has internet access, but neither Aperture nor iPhoto will work on it because of the aforesaid corruption problem.
So I’ve bought iPhoto Library Manager to fix the corruption in my library, and I believe it will do that, but it’s been working on the problem for fourteen hours so far and it is not even halfway finished. Yes, I have a large library. By tomorrow night, if the software has worked, I may be able to access my photos—although there is the very strong possibility that when I connect the camera, Aperture will open, and will freeze, because it doesn’t know that iPhoto Library Manager has built an entirely new photo library, because that’s how iPhoto Library Manager solves the problem. So tomorrow night, when iPhoto Library Manager finally stops grinding away at my corrupted photo library, I may need to uninstall Aperture just to get the photos off my camera.
I also can’t access internet content outside my living room because my walls are thick and my network no longer recognizes my Airport Extreme (so I’m waiting for Apple to deliver another one) but that would be a third kvetch in the same post, and two is all you get.
So I think maybe Apple is telling me to go out and spend time with my friends on this cold but sunny morning, and to only use computers in my studio, where they and the internet magically work. Only, why would Apple tell me that? How does that message get me to buy more of their stuff? It doesn’t, logically. And yet I know I will buy more and more of their stuff. I’m probably buying some right now.
I should acquire an unfaithful mistress and lavish her with jewelry I can’t afford. At least then people would understand.