Monday, January 12, 2015

Radar failure

The interests of the Dutch consumer are taken care of by a flock of organisations, magazines and television programs which pay attention to sad cases of consumer abuse, rare cases of company kindness, pitfalls, traps and other bumps in the road from shop to trashcan. There is the Consumentenbond, which is mainly concerned about its paying members, ANWB, for consumers on wheels, Eigen Huis, for the besieged home owner, and, on television, Kassa and Radar.

Radar boasts an active forum, so it seemed a logical place to seek support in the MacCity case. The discussion started evoked some critical remarks, some supporting gestures, as can be expected in a discussion forum, but no concrete pointers on how to proceed. At the very least, the discussion could serve as a word of warning for those dealing with said companies, so, as such, it served a purpose.

The discussion on the Radar forum had lived happily for three months or so, when MicroFix' CEO joined, demanding that my 'false accusations' be removed. I countered some of his irrelevant claptrap, was actually waiting for some sound arguments on Dutch consumer law, service, quality, and the sorry state of Apple, but he immediately bailed out.

It did not take too long for the entire discussion to be removed by the Radar forum moderator, because documents provided by MacCity seemed to have proved that some of my statements were incorrect. My request to see those 'documents' was refused with a simple 'this is between you and MacCity.' Earlier, MacCity, MicroFix and Apple had refused to provide any documentation supporting their claim that I had gotten the new logic board I had paid for, but now MacCity was all too eager to send this documentation to Radar, which accepted it without questioning, and used it against me?

I sent a complaint to Radar, asking them to give me a chance to defend myself. All in all, it was simply my word against the word of MacCity et al., and Radar had blindly chosen the side of MacCity, based on confidential 'proof', which could not be checked for authenticity or relevance. At the very least, Radar should apply the basic journalist's principle of an adversarial process.

To my astonishment, Radar replied with an easy way out: Radar has no journalist pretentions, Radar just facilitates and moderates discussions among consumers and companies. My reply that applying the adversial process is not just a matter of sound journalism, but also a sign of good manners has remained unanswered, so far.

Radar has lowered itself to a level where Radar is about Radar. Without sound journalist principles, and without good manners, it has become another sad instance of pulp fiction, another talk show that is just about getting cheap attention, scoring high ratings, and hitting next days' front pages. Dutch commercial television has had its fair share of sub-standard productions, but Radar is still on the government-funded public net, which provides an incentive to produce quality. I hope to start a discussion with the responsible broadcast company, AVROTROS, about the position of Radar on the public net, but in my honest opinion, Dutch consumers can fly without Radar.

In Radar speak, this is why I would like to nominate Radar for a scalding hot shower.

Postscript - Radar has been reprimanded repeatedly by the Dutch Raad voor de Journalistiek (Council for Journalism), for guerilla-journalism, ignoring the principle of the adversarial process, and twisting the truth. I take it that Radar found an easy escape by dropping all journalist pretensions.

Friday, January 9, 2015

Consumer Rights Carroussel

Dutch law protects consumers by stating that one can expect a product to have certain properties, and that the seller must repair or replace a product which does not live up to its expectations (Burgerlijk Wetboek, artikel 7:17). However, the law leaves unspecified what these expectations are, so in practice, said article is just a starting point for endless discussion.

In my opinion, I can expect a €700 logic board of good quality to last longer than one and a half year, so I decided to seek legal help. In The Netherlands, the Authority for Consumers & Markets (ACM) 'keeps track of the latest trends and developments for consumers and businesses. ACM looks specifically at the energy, telecommunication, transport and postal services industries, and, more in general, at competition and consumer protection law. We take action against businesses that do not play by the rules. And we take a broader perspective when looking for what is needed to solve the underlying problem in a market. When using our instruments and powers, the effect of our actions is central.' Sounds promising, isn't it?

The ACM mission statement is phrased in more political wordings: "The Netherlands Authority for Consumers and Markets (ACM) creates opportunities and options for businesses and consumers – opportunities for innovation, new products, services and businesses, and options for consumers so they have a real choice, and are not afraid of making a choice. That is why we want businesses be open about what they offer. And finally, consumers should be informed of what their rights are. Therein lies the key to having well-functioning markets" It took me a while to learn the total lack of commitment embedded in this mission statement.

The ACM prefers to be approached through Consuwijzer, the Dutch government's counter for consumers: "With us, you can find independent and reliable information about your rights" Consuwijzer invites the abused Dutch consumer to register a complaint: "This is to your advantage, because ConsuWijzer registers each question and complaint. Your signal will directly reach this monitor (ACM), who is legally qualified to intervene if companies do not play by the rules" So, I explained my case with MacCity to the Consuwijzer website and indicated that I was both registering a complaint and asking for advice. I received an email confirmation, which promised a reply within six working days. The procedure had started. At least, I thought so.

The next day, Consuwijzer sent me a sloppy email summary of my case, which would be passed on to ACM. A note added that it is Important that I ask questions and register complaints with the ACM, as the ACM can start an investigation, have the authority to fine a company, and force companies to find a solution for a given probem. A popular saying warns that if something sounds too good to be true, it usually is. Indeed, Consuwijzer added they will not solve my problem: they just give me advice about my rights. That is a little disappointing, but I can live with a decent advice.

Six days went by, without a word of advice.So, I emailed Consuwijzer for clarification. They replied my case was complex, indeed, and could not be handled through email: I had to contact them through phone, to receive a detailed advice, tailored to my situation. Great!

It took me a week get connected to a Consuwijzer consultant through telephone, but the consult did not last too long. Without going into the 'complexity' of my case, the lady referred me to Juridisch Loket. My question of why she could not have given me this 'advice' through email remained answered.

Juridisch Loket is funded by the Dutch Government to provide free legal counselling to people that do not have the financial means to hire a lawyer. My email was routinely answered with a standard reply about consumer rights, and I found out I needed to make a phone call (25 cent per minute) if I wanted more specific support. I was not exactly the only client willing to pay 25 cent per minute for free legal advice, so Juridisch Loket kept me waiting for almost half an hour. When I finally got through, a consultant told me that my case was too complex to be solved through phone, so I needed to visit in person, making sure to bring all  documents relevant to my case.

The nearest office of the Juridisch Loket is one hour from my home town, but at least I would have the chance to talk through my Complex Case with a Real Lawyer! My consult lasted 20 minutes. Without even looking into the specifics of my Complex Case, a dark-haired bimbo refered me to a real lawyer, who was available for providing subsidised legal help. Her computer had the flu, so details were to follow later.

One week later, the Real Lawyer told me he was not really interested in my case, or, in his words, costs and benefits were out of balance. I left with a strong impression that the case was too much work for the standard fee he would get from subsidised legal help.

To sum up, The Netherlands have a nice carroussel up and running, with Consuwijzer, ACM, Juridisch Loket and subsidised legal support, which is mainly running to support itself, and not exactly functional as a tool to protect the innocent Dutch consumer from scam artists. For practical problem solving, it is probably more effective to hire the local motorcycle gang. Our noble King has dubbed this principle 'Participation Society': every man for himself.

Fortunately, there are a number of independent and critical consumer organisations, on television in print. In my next posting, I will explain how helpful these are.

Wednesday, January 7, 2015

The state of Apple

I might have been willing to chalk off my bad experience with Apple as a sad isolated incident, if there had not been an obvious pattern visible in the media. Problems with high-end Mac Book Pros are structural.

Over the past decade, Apple has been washed away in the craze of making laptops smaller and lighter, to an extent where quality is jeopardized. Modern MBPs are so compact, they cannot dissipate their heat properly, and as a result, their components and their connections are slowly dying an untimely death, which is dubbed 'MeltBook Pro syndrome'. In addition, modern MBPs are basically a big blob of glue and solder, as all components are permanently glued or mounted to the logic board, making it impossible to upgrade, repair or replace them. That is, if one component dies, the whole laptop dies, and repair is not economically feasible. I do not think it is coincidence that the expected life of a MBP is three years, which is exactly the period covered by the AppleCare guarantee, which Apple buyers are advised to pay a premium for. If you want Apple service, pay for it,  buy a new machine after AppleCare expires, or shut up.

The MeltBook Pro syndrome is aggravated by design flaws, that expose the pattern as crystal clear. Owners of the 2011 generation of MacBook Pro have been enraged for at least one year, as their build of laptop suffers from failures closely tied to the Graphic Processor Unit failing, due to excessive heat. It is often suggested that this failure is caused by the use of lead-free solder, but a constant factor in this slate of problems is Apple looking away.

A petition titled 'Replace or Fix all 2011 MacBook Pro with Graphics Failures'  has been signed by more than 33,000 supporters, but Apple does not care. Apples discussion features a whopping 742-page long thread by Apple customers trying to get attention for their high end MBP dying, and the responses, or lack thereof, by Apple Stores and Apple Authorized Service Providers. While some customers are offered a free logic board replacement, many former Apple fans are paying as much as EU 700 for a repair, which in many cases lasts no longer than a few weeks. Sounds familiar? Customers are desperately trying to avoid the syndrome by switching off the dreaded GPU, by drilling holes in the bottom of their beatiful aluminium unibody, or by baking their machine like a pizza. The common pattern here is that Apple does not care. A Facebook page has been created to ask attention to the '2011 MacBook Pro and Discrete Graphics Card Issue' and, yet, Apple does not care. In the US state of California, a class action suit has been filed, and Apple does not care. In Canada, a national class action has been filed. Apple does not care.

Over the past decade, Apple has developed into a company, big enough to ignore its customers. While Steve Jobs' Apple created innovative products to suit the creative professional, Tim Cook has turned Apple into a money machine that pleases its shareholders, performing parlor tricks like taking the Icebucket Challenge or Coming out of this Closet, to entertain the masses. Walter Isaacson, author of The Innovators, stated in an interview with Think Big that Steve Jobs' favourite product was not so much the Mac, the iPad, the iPhone or the iPod. Steve's favourite was the Apple Team.

I am afraid that Steve Jobs would be seriously disappointed by his favourite product in its 2015 edition. While Apple Inc. will continue to profit from selling out the Jobs legacy, there is no way a misled team will continue to create great products. We will see why 2015 will be like 1984...

Rotten Apples

Shit happens, so when my MacBook Pro died in February 2013, I thought it was just bad luck, and though I was disappointed in Apple, I decided to shell out the €700 to have its logic board replaced. With a brand new core, my machine would last for years. At least, I hoped so.

Last summer, history repeated itself, and my MacBook Pro died again, with symptoms resembling February 2013. Fortunately, Dutch consumer law protects the innocent with the notion of 'conformity': in this case, I can expect a logic board I paid €700 for to last longer than one and a half year. Unfortunately, MacCity in Emmeloord, that had taken in my MBP for repair, initially did not respond at all, and then simply stated that they gave me only 1 year of guarantee. I sent them a formal letter, issuing a consumer claim, but the registered mail was refused. This company had dealt with complaints before. A second letter was answered with a response that my claim was rejected because my MacBook Pro had been repaired, and was not a new product, Apple had declared it 'vintage', so it would not be serviced anyways, Apple Canada was responsible, and the defect needed to be verified by an Authorized Apple Service Provider. In a subsequent email I explained that consumer law does apply to new computer parts, Apple notion of 'vintage' is not recognized by Dutch law,  the company that sold me the new logic board, i.e. MacCity, is responsible, and it suffices to have my MBP diagnosed by an independent lab. MacCity choose to ignore my reply. Indeed, they had experience with complaining customers!

I decided to take up the gauntlet and follow the money. A phone call with some Apple Authorized Service Providers revealed that my MacBook Pro had been repaired by MicroFix in Amsterdam. To my surprise, my contact suggested the logic board had been repaired, while I had paid for a new logic board. This was getting a little smelly. MicroFix refused to provide me any documentation on my repair, as they only wanted to deal with MacCity directly. So, there was no way for me to put the finger on the rotten apple: had MacCity asked MicroFix to patch up my logic board, and make me pay for a new board, had MicroFix played a trick on MacCity, or had mother Apple been involved? The mere fact that neither MacCity nor MicroFix showed even the slightest interest in proving me that I had gotten the new logic board I had paid for, suggested Apple was speaking the truth, so I decided to continue my inquiry with Apple.

Contacting Apple is easier said than done. I spent days writing, emailing, chatting and phoning Apple support engineers, Apple managers and Apple idiots, from Amsterdam, to Cork, to Cupertino, and the majority of them refused to answer my letters, emails, and calls, told me to write, email or call somebody else, or bluntly refused to answer my questions. For some reason, Apple was not interested in proving that Apple and associated companies were doing a good job. Apple did not care.

My concerns boiled down to one question. Apple is known to keep a registry of all Apple parts that are replaced by its service provider. So, if my logic board had been replaced, where did it go? It took me a couple of weeks to finally reach a support engineer who confirmed that (i) there was no information available to Apple about my 'replaced' logic board, which indicated that (ii) my logic board had not been replaced, but repaired instead. And, no, he could not provide me with the official documents of the repair history of my MBP. It was not the proof I had hoped for, but it was a strong indication there was something rotten in the state of The Netherlands.

I decided to climb the Apple tree, and it did not take long before I was contacted by Margaret Lordan, Executive Relations EMEIA of Apple Distribution International in Cork, Ireland. I had to look it up: EMEIA stands for Europe, Middle East India and Africa. And, yes, that is the branch of Apple that refuses to pay tax in Europe. Margaret Lordan refused to answer my letters and emails, and when I finally managed to get to her by phone, I understood why: she coldly told me that Apple does not consider itself bound by Dutch law, if I do not agree I better hire a lawyer, and if I do not like Apple, I better move to Microsoft Windows.

So, that is what I did. I configured a PC to run Ubuntu Linux, will install Windows for the software that does not run on Linux, and started my quest for legal help. The latter, however, was more complicated than I had hoped. Dutch consumer law is just a piece of paper, as we will see.