Was it ethical for me to take a half hour of a genius’s time and get a repair that probably would have cost me upwards of a hundred dollars at a non-genius shop? Well, I look at it this way. If they really sell five thousand dollars a year of stuff from that place for every square foot in it, they seem to think they can afford to give away free software repairs in the back.
It is a sad fact of life that even the best-engineered system breaks down from time to time. Hence repairmen (or should I say repair people, these days) are assured of job security, although the types of repairs they make have changed radically over the years. For a few summers in high school and college, I worked as a repair technician at an audiovisual services shop, fixing tape recorders and dealing mainly with mechanical rather than electrical troubles. But when my Mac laptop started acting up the other day, I decided to take it to the 2012 version of Mac’s fix-it shop: the Genius Bar.
That’s an inspired name, by the way, evoking images of a drinking establishment with a bouncer that lets in only MENSA members with IQs above 140. What it is in fact is a counter at the rear of an Apple retail store in an Austin shopping mall. I had heard recently that Apple retail stores have the highest sales figures per square foot of store area of any type of mall store, and after visiting one, I believe it.
The display windows showed life-size cutout profiles of two people enjoying some of the latest Mac products. Just a few minutes after the store opened at 10, it was as crowded as a discount clothing store during tax-free weekend. And about half the people inside wore identical blue tee-shirts with Mac logos: the sales staff. Someone greeted me as soon as I stepped in the door. I explained that I had gone online and made an appointment for 10:15 at the Genius Bar, and the man referred me to another sales associate, a young woman carrying an iPad (clipboards are so twentieth-century), who looked up my name and said it would be just a few minutes. I was early, so I didn’t mind waiting.
Customers, or potential customers, were everywhere, trying out the wares displayed on clean, simple white box-like tables or browsing through the accessories for iPads, iPhones, and i don’t know what all else. I wasn’t in the market for any of those, so I poked around where they had custom-made cases for iPads. The one I found most amusing was made to look like a codex: one of those pre-printing-press books with thick hand-painted leather binding. It gave me the same kind of feeling I had when I first heard a student’s cellphone in my class emit a classic mechanical-bell ringtone.
Pretty soon yet a third salesperson hunted me down. “Karl? We’re ready for you, have a seat right here.” It was just a bare counter with four high stools and barely enough elbow room to separate me from an older woman with a German accent who was explaining what her Macbook Air wasn’t doing right.
My genius (I’ll call him Biff) was a late-twenty-something man who was distinguished from many of the other salespeople by not having any tattoos. He asked me what the problem was. I told him my Magic Mouse did all its magic except scrolling, and it wasn’t the mouse because it would scroll fine with my wife’s computer.
He tried some obvious things first. Logging in as a guest, he discovered that when he did that, the mouse worked. That was progress, but he explained that all it told him was that some of my custom library and root stuff was corrupted, because when a guest logs in the library is empty.
I will not bore you with what all he tried in the next half hour. At one point, because no one had mentioned charges or fees, I asked him what this would cost. “Nothing unless we turn a screw.” So software fixes were free. That sounded good. Every so often he’d spin the computer over to me and ask me to enter my password again. I must have done that fifteen or twenty times. It gave me a nice but entirely spurious sense that I was assisting in the repair.
At one point he turned to the fellow genius next to him, an older guy with a short beard, earrings, and many tattoos. The guy said, “Don’t try this unless you know what you’re doing,” went into some mysterious part of the file system where all the files were labeled with incomprehensible abbreviations like “ertx” and “infpro,” but failed to fix the problem. My genius reset something on the machine that took a few minutes and excused himself to go in the back and consult with the web, I suppose.
When he came back, I said I supposed they wouldn’t let him work on my machine all day, would they? Was there a time limit?
“Not a time limit exactly, but a goal. We can be somewhat flexible, and there’s one more thing I can try.” Saying thus, he opened some files and started selectively wiping out whole sections. I got a little nervous and recalled Mark Twain’s saying that “a good horse was a good horse until it had run away once, and a good watch was a good watch until the repairers got a chance at it.” But this wasn’t the first time the machine (a fairly new one) had been in for repairs, so it wasn’t really relevant to the case.
Finally, Biff turned my Mac back to me and said, “Now, one more password entry, and see what it does now.” Then he tried stroking the mouse’s back, and this time it scrolled. And we were in my library, not the guest’s empty one. I congratulated Biff, thanked him for his time, packed up my Mac, and walked through the crowd surging around the thousands of dollars’ worth of retail merchandise I steadfastly refrained from buying, and went about the rest of my day.
Was it ethical for me to take a half hour of a genius’s time and get a repair that probably would have cost me upwards of a hundred dollars at a non-genius shop? Well, I look at it this way. If they really sell five thousand dollars a year of stuff from that place for every square foot in it, they seem to think they can afford to give away free software repairs in the back. And if some customers take advantage of this service without leaving some of their cash behind for other more costly attractions on display, well, it’s just a cost of doing business that way. I for one thank Apple for being so generous, and only wish there were more Apple retail stores nationwide. But that would spell trouble for all the other Mac repair shops, so maybe things are just as well the way they are.
Sources: The statistic on retail sales in Mac stores (their figure of $5,647 per square foot, presumably per year, is seventeen times the U.S. mall store average of $341) is from an MSN Money article published on April 19, 2012 at https://www.msn.com/. Mark Twain’s comment about horses and watches, which he attributes to his deceased Uncle William, is in his short story, “My Watch.”
This column originally appeared on the Engineering Ethics blog, you can find it by visiting https://engineeringethicsblog.blogspot.com/.