TV-PGMarch 27, 2002: You want to know what held up those iMacs? According to one theory, it was SuperDrive firmware problems and issues with the silver bendy thing. Meanwhile, Maine finally moves forward on its $25 million plan to outfit every seventh- and eighth-grader in the state with a spiffy new iBook, and Apple nixes the account of a promising young Darwin developer because "you must be at least this tall to ride this ride"...
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Keep Azrael On Retainer (3/27/02)

Say, remember how, when flat-panel iMacs were tougher to find than power ties at a biker bar, the hottest trend in the Mac community involved guessing just what sort of problems must have led to Apple's massive production shortfalls? Our personal favorite was Merrill Lynch's oh-so-responsible insistence that production was being held up because of a "radiation problem," a suggestion just zany enough to have inspired us to form our own groundless opinion that the Taiwanese manufacturing plants where the iMacs are built were clearly being overrun by belligerent and snap-happy drunken Smurfs armed with wet towels and bad attitudes. ("I can't run the line anymore, boss-- this welt really stings!") Well, it's been nearly a week since Steve Jobs announced that the drought was over and iMacs had entered volume production-- and people are still trying to guess what caused the delay.

Take, for example, MacUser, who claims to have unearthed the real reasons why Apple spent a couple of months producing fewer iMacs than it would have if artisans had been individually carving each one from a block of raw soapstone with their tongues. According to MacUser, the oft-rumored iMac firmware problem is real, and allegedly confirmed by internal Knowledge Base articles accessible only by Apple support personnel; it's apparently something to do with a compatibility issue between the SuperDrive and the iMac's hard drive. iMacs produced since the problem was discovered and fixed are, of course, A-okay, and it seems that unless your high-end iMac is screwed up enough to require service, you don't need the firmware update. It's hard to gauge, of course, since Apple appears to be keeping this issue under wraps for PR reasons.

Of course, something like a firmware issue wouldn't really cause production problems, though it may well have thrown a wrench into the distribution side of things. We can see some poor guy getting stuck with the job of applying a firmware update to every single SuperDrive iMac in the warehouse; beats cleaning toilets, but not by much. On the production side, MacUser claims that "problems with the construction of the arm that connects the iMac's screen to its base" (more technically known as "that silver bendy thing") led to a drastic slowdown until Apple started "building the arm units [i.e. "bendy things"] separately from the main production line." Man, we just knew that bendy thing would be trouble.

Whatever the problems, though, by all accounts, Apple has conquered them, and very soon resellers will be awash in a sea of LCD iMacs just waiting to be adopted by happy homes. The bottom line is that whatever plagued Apple's iMac production has apparently been fixed, iMacs will soon be plentiful, and we may never really know just what caused the Great iMac Drought of 2002. But if you buy a new iMac and find an empty can of Extra-Strength Smurf-Away rattling around in the box, you'll probably have a pretty good idea of what really happened.

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All Systems Are (Finally) Go (3/27/02)

And thus does a long and weary battle wind to a close-- and Steve's side won. Way back in January, Uncle Steve made a big deal about Apple having sold a whopping 36,000 iBooks to Maine, whose Governor Angus King had a grand vision of Macifying every single public school seventh- and eighth-grader in the state-- not a bad plan, as far as massively ambitious educational initiatives go. But later that month, it appeared that Steve had done his "In Your Face, Mike Dell" victory dance a little too soon, because King's laptop fund was in danger of being seized by the state legislature and used to subsidize various social services in need of cash during this economic downturn.

Some of the anti-laptop lobbyists got abusive, as they are wont to do-- especially since they'd been fighting this $25 million plan for two years, and really kicked the arguments into high gear in the past couple of months. But that's all behind us now, because according to a Sun Journal article, Governor King just signed the state budget on Monday night-- and despite the best efforts of his opponents, his $25 million for junior high iBooks remains intact. He is described as being "relieved"; we can only imagine that Steve is, too, since Apple's role in "the largest educational technology program in history" is now secure.

"Largest" is probably right, because it's definitely tough to imagine one bigger. Even though the program begins this year by equipping only the seventh-graders, that still means that in just five short months, schools all over Maine will be taking delivery of about nineteen thousand AirPort-equipped iBooks destined for nomadic life in middle-school backpacks. Folks, think about it; that is one serious pile of iBooks. Pull 'em out of their boxes and stack 'em all with an incredibly steady hand, and you've got a pile well over a third of a mile high and weighing about 93,000 pounds-- and the second shipment is due to arrive next year.

We're utterly thrilled that Apple has pulled off such a hefty educational sale, but now that we're officially Old Fogies 'round here at the AtAT studios, part of us can't help but get a little nervous at the thought of 19,000 twelve-year-olds armed with a collective 9.5 terahertz of shiny white processor power at their disposal. Should we duck, or put on helmets or something?

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How To Alienate The Fans (3/27/02)

Speaking of kids with Macs, by now you've probably heard of the plight of Finlay Dobbie, a gifted developer who was working on the Darwin open source guts of Mac OS X. Indeed, apparently Finlay even managed to isolate and help fix a particular PPP hanging bug that had been plaguing some Mac users, and seemed to be well on his way to becoming a vital contributor to the continuing development of Apple's next-generation operating system. Unfortunately, as faithful viewer William Bonde informed us, Finlay forgot to lie about his age.

See, Finlay's only fifteen years old, and as far as Apple Corporate is concerned, that's a real problem from a legal perspective. As a minor, Finlay can't technically commit to legal agreements such as the Non-Disclosure Agreement required for enrollment in the Apple Developer Connection. According to lawyer Gene Riccoboni as quoted in a Wired article about this fracas, "any contract entered into with a minor is voidable" and can "unilaterally be rescinded." In other words, Finlay could sign the NDA, get access to confidential Apple intellectual property, post it for all the world to see, and Apple would have no way to hold him legally liable for the act. Not that we're implying that Finlay would ever do such a thing, of course-- he looks like a nice guy. Unfortunately, Apple is a public company accountable to its shareholders, and therefore generally has to cover its butt six ways from Sunday when it comes to legal stuff like this.

Sadly, even if it basically has no choice about what it needs to do, Apple's legal department certainly has a real knack for finding the most hamfisted PR-nightmare ways of going about its business. Finlay woke up one day to find his ADC account terminated, sans notification. When he dug around to find out why, he got what amounted to a form letter telling him that since he was a minor, his account was "inactivated" and "no refund or partial refund of any ADC annual fee will be made for any reason." Ain't that sweet? Just as the way in which Apple abruptly shut down MacCards a couple of years ago gave the company a PR black eye among Mac fans and evangelists, Finlay's sudden booting from the ADC for being fifteen just makes it look like Apple hates kids-- especially geek-god kids who help fix Apple's own bugs. Yeah, that's just the sort of image that'll attract young, eager developers to the platform in droves.

We understand that Apple Legal occasionally has to take certain unpopular actions to protect the company; we just think that everybody (yes, folks, even the shareholders!) would be a lot better off if the lawyers showed a little bit of consideration when they find themselves compelled to do something unfortunate to people who are obviously fans of the platform. Someone could have called Finlay and explained the situation to him instead of just shutting out the lights. For that matter, since the guy's only working on Darwin anyway (open source presumably means no NDA required), isn't there a way that he can continue to contribute without needing to be a full-fledged ADC member? Take it a step further; wouldn't it be neat (and in line with Apple's alleged unwavering commitment to education) if the company had a kid-friendly developer program level sans NDA and other legal entanglements which would provide a level of support and training without giving access to trade secrets?

No, we don't know all the legal issues involved here, so maybe none of these wacky ideas is really feasible without exposing the company to certain unacceptable legal risks. But we're pretty sure that someone could at least have contacted Finlay to explain the situation with his account without Cupertino disappearing into the earth's crust.

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