The Rants, Raves, Gripes, and Prophecies of Paul R. Potts

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Fri, 18 Mar 2005 The Thrice-Cursed Airport Express

The thrice-cursed Airport Express has crashed again. First, printer sharing failed, and then a few days later the shared internet connection failed. Running the Airport Admin utility revealed that the device couldn't even be found on the network. A power cycle fixed it.

I checked Apple's site and there is an update to the firmware, which will take the device from 6.1 to 6.1.1; we'll see if that offers any improvement. The AirPort 4.1 software package offered for download on the same page is apparently the same version I already have. Meanwhile, until I determine if this update helps the reliability, I can't recommend the AirPort Express to anyone.

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Wed, 16 Feb 2005 The AirPort Express Saga Continues

So, the AirPort Express is still not entirely right in the head - it didn't die the way it did before, but Grace was always informing me that either she couldn't print, or her computer would not connect; it either would not automatically reconnect after sleep, despite supplying the network control panel with the network name and password, or sometimes also could not connect even when explicitly supplying the private network name and password. Sometimes the configuration utility, running from my wired PowerBook, could not even find the device. It had apparently crashed. After power-cycling the device, Grace's computer was always able to connect to it.

The last time, I finally decided to give up having a private network, and just make it an open share. There are several others in the neighborhood.

This seems to have made it work reliably again (so far). But I didn't really want an open share. I'm not trying to be a bad citizen; it is just not in our mission statement to supply a public network access point.

I'm not sure what the problem is, but I am disappointed in the reliability of this setup. I don't think the problem is in Grace's computer, since it will connect flawlessly to other wireless networks. For a device without a power switch, cycling the power should not be required.

Then, there are printing problems: sometimes when printing large photographs, the print queue seems to bog down so much that the printer gives up waiting for data and resets the job, spitting out the unfinished picture. I would give up on printer sharing, but given that it is a USB printer, it cannot be shared on the network directly. The alternative is to share it through my PowerBook, which seems to work more reliably but which requires my PowerBook to be on all the time, or requires Grace to remember to wake it up before she tries to print.

I guess this would not be an issue if we had a server machine, but it seemed very convenient to just use the AirPort Express. And it would be, if it worked well. But it seems like the box is just slightly unreliable in several ways. And it isn't like our setup, one wireless PowerBook, used mostly to read e-mail, and one inkjet printer, used only occasionally, should be a serious stress-test. I suppose I need to check to see if there is a firmware upgrade. Sigh...

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Fri, 03 Dec 2004 Apple in Retail and the Airport Express Adventure

I'm trying to write shorter, more frequent blog entries. Brevity is hard for me! And writing more frequently has been a challenge as well. Besides the transition to living with a newborn baby, my use of the computers at home has been disrupted by a malfunctioning AirPort? Express.

We've had it for only about two months, and it worked great when we got it; it allowed us to rearrange our network to minimize long cables, and untether Grace's computer (an old and battered iBook). Now everything is temporarily patched so that she can go online from our bedroom, but no one else can. I've been loathe to completely rearrange the network hardware and cables temporarily, so we're limping along until the AirPort? Express comes back.

It seems to be a power-supply problem. The Airport Express is basically an AirPort base station built into the from factor of the square white iBook/PowerBook power supply. It has no power switch, and is designed to stay on whenever it is plugged in. When you plug it in now, the green indicator light comes very briefly on - just a flicker for a fraction of a second - and then goes out. Discusson on Apple's support boards seems to indicate that a few other people are reporting the same problem. I am guessing that the units have failing power supplies; to avoid dissipating too much heat, Apple may have had to specify an anemic power supply. Maybe the first batch was then prone to burning out. But that is only speculation on my part.

What is not speculation is that it is still very painful to get support for Apple hardware sold retail. I bought this AirPort Express off the shelf at CompUSA locally. In retrospect, this was a mistake. I then managed to lose the receipt, although I could have sworn it went into the box with all the receipts I carefully saved from the parts for my recent home-built PC. I did still have the box and the warranty paper, but that probably isn't good for much but recycling.

First, I tried to call Apple. Naturally, they only answer the phones during banker's hours. That would mean camping on the phone from work, not a good move at this point in time in my rather strained work environment. So I decided to talk to CompUSA. They don't do repairs or returns on any of the Apple products sold. In other words, a computer store, with an in-store repair center, that sells you a product, can't accept it for a return or a repair, because it has an Apple logo. I guess they make an exception for return for any reason within 14 days, or something like that, but otherwise, if you bought an Apple product from them, you've got to talk to Apple.

There's something wrong with this picture. I am afraid I became testy with them and demanded to speak to a manager. She was polite, but kept saying, essentially, that if I had wanted them to be able to swap me a new AirPort Express, I should have paid them for a CompUSA extended warranty or purchased AppleCare. I replied angrily that Apple covers the product for one year, and that they should swap it and negotiate the issue with Apple for me. No-no-no, they don't do that. They were, however, able to print me a duplicate receipt, so that I had, more or less, proof that I purchased it from CompUSA on September 11th, 2004 (perhaps it is just that date of ill omen that doomed the AirPort Express). This should not have been strictly necessary, as all AirPort Express boxes are still under warranty, but I was glad to have something to show Apple if necessary.

Grace then tried to take the device to the Apple Store in Novi. Surprise: the store has moved. After packing up Isaac and the baby and driving to the old location, no one in the plaza could tell her where they moved to, the baby needed changing, Isaac needed to get to choir practice... so back they came.

She went back again the next day. Apple accepted the AirPort Express and agreed to replace it, but did not have any in stock. We since were notified that it is ready to pick up. She tried to get out there yesterday to pick it up and had an attack of mysterious abdominal pain (second incident), and so once again had to turn around and come home.

She may be able to get out to pick it up today, although the baby has had some difficult nights and she's been pretty tired. Tomorrow is Thanksgiving, so presumably if she can't get it today, she'll be trying Friday, but we're not keen on contending with crazy day-after-Thanksgiving traffic and crowds with a near-newborn baby in tow.

So, the tally so far: one phone call and five road trips totalling at least five hours, to get warranty service for a little box that only cost $125 initially, and which I bought locally.

Like I said, there's something wrong with this picture. Perhaps it would have been easier to do this entirely by phone and mail with Apple, but this all just seems like the wrong model. Buying a piece of cheap, commodity Apple hardware should not be like buying an exotic foreign car. I know Apple has had a difficult relationship with retailers; their hardware is pricey and high-margin, and retailers can't make the profits they make on commodity PCs.

I'm not sure what the solution is, but this retail experience, quite frankly, sucks, and if this is what first-time Apple buyers face when they pick up an iPod or what-not, it is not going to encourage them to buy Apple again, at least not from chain retailers.

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Wed, 01 Dec 2004 The iPod U2 Special Edition

I have only a few comments on this item. The first is that I want one. Not because of U2's signatures or the included songs or coupons for the boxed set, but because I'd like to have an iPod, and I like my consumer electronics toys to be black. I could live without the red scroll wheel, but I suppose it is OK. I look reasonably good in a nice dark red. But it also comes with the standard white headphones, which goes quite a ways towards ruining the allure of the black unit altogether.

I would definitely use an iPod, both for music and downloadable audio programs, which could make my work existence a little more bearable this grim fall and winter, and for carting around other files. But my objection is mainly that it is too expensive; I can't feel comfortable spending that much. If I could write programs for it, or use it to learn a new programming language, develop a demo, or advance my career or hobbies in some way, then perhaps. But even so, and even though I'm now employed and earning a decent salary, with a new baby and the prospect of a bleak economy and more unemployment in the future, it is just too much of a luxury item.

My last point is that I think Apple is making a mistake in pricing the black U2 iPod higher than the standard model. I'd consider buying one -- with the strange white headphones, with the signed case, with the "big U2 fan" (which I'm not) aura to it -- but I certainly wouldn't pay m ore for what is essentially a style distinction, not even a brand distinction.

To digress as I love to do: I did count myself a U2 fan in the Boy/War era, and I love Steve Lillywhite's work as a producer. I liked their work with Brian Eno quite a bit as well. I still have some bootleg casettes of U2 playing in small venues doing "I Threw a Brick," "Stories for Boys," and "An Cat Dubh." But that was a long time and a lot of albums ago. I haven't bought a U2 album for almost twenty years. U2 these days doesn't get a lot of points as a brand to me; there's just not really very much allure left. In the same vein, as an REM fan who bought Murmur and Chronic Town on vinyl, and saw them live on the Fables of the Reconstruction tour almost 20 years ago, I can honestly say that we've both moved on. But the people Apple is marketing this to are perhaps younger: those who first heard of REM around the Green period, and who first heard of U2 around the Achtung, Baby! release, when both bands were indisputably mainstream pop.

But even assuming I'm not the target audience, I think Apple has a misconception about the allure of "limited-edition" and "co-branded" products. I think these things will get people's attention, but the same people will then quickly run a cost-benefit analysis in their heads. The U2 brand and the "special" aspects of the product will in fact draw people to it, but I don't believe that they will want to pay a higher price for this cachet. I don't want to, and probably won't... if I do eventually buy an iPod, and can't get a black one for the same price, I'll probably get an white one. Or a mini, even though the size limitation will make it less convenient (just putting my unabridged Tolkien audiobooks will probably fill half of it), strictly based on price.

Apple should be thinking of the co-branding as a way of getting people in the door, and any extras in the box as an incentive to move iPods, not as a way to increase the price.

As for the extras that go in the box, like the poster, and the $50 coupon towards the U2 "every song" set -- they do not fundamentally add value for me. I could say "well, I would have purchased the set anyway, so this is actually saving me money." But it doesn't do that; even if I was likely to purchase the set, which I am not, paying $50 more to get a $50 coupon wouldn't really give me anything, would it? A discount coupon works as an incentive to get someone to buy something that he or she would not buy otherwise. The set will be a big-ticket, high-profit item. Discounts entice more people to buy it, with a modest hit to the per-item profit margin. But paying extra for the coupon would just mean putting a down payment on something I'm not likely to buy. It would be like buying myself a gift certificate. Where's the fun in that?

Addendum: had I been more flush with cash, I definitely would have bid on the Unauthorized U2 vs. Negativland iPod being auctioned on eBay. The complete Negativland catalog represents a lot bigger bonus, and the collector's aspect is real. Unfortunately, Apple has little sense of humor about things like this, and the auction has been suspended. Sigh. Negativeland

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