Daniel Eran Dilger
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Ridiculous Rescuecom Statistics Create Apple Reliability Headlines

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Daniel Eran Dilger

According to new numbers released by a company I’ve never heard of before, Apple’s computer reliability rankings have suddenly fallen precipitously over the last three months, suggesting that either low cost Chinese imports are now of better quality, or that statistics are easy to get wrong.

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The numbers, reported by Computerworld, come from rankings that compare the number of tech support calls received by Rescuecom (an operation similar to Geek Squad) and the given PC maker’s market share as determined by, apparently, IDC.

Rescuecom’s Apple-related support calls only amounted to 1.1% of the company’s calls in 2008, but in the last few months (!), they made up 2.1% of its calls. Apple’s US market share numbers were reported to be 7.8% in 2008 but Rescuecom used a 6.8% market share figure for the current quarter, resulting in a “reliability” statistic calculated by Rescuecom that shifted from 700 in 2008 to the current 324.

In comparison, Asus was given a score of 972, both because that company has experienced a widening market share thanks to a surge of holiday netbook sales, but also because very few Asus owners have called Rescuecom for help. And Panasonic, which was in second place behind Apple three month ago, managed to fall off the charts completely.

Macs plummet in Rescuecom reliability ranking

The Market Share Myth.

It’s almost painful to point out how absurd these numbers are. For starters, Apple’s “market share” is based on a loose definition of market that has nothing to do with Apple. PC market share numbers as reported by groups such as IDG and Gartner were invented in the 90s to flatter Microsoft and marginalize competitors, providing a quotable metric to prove that nobody could possibly compete against the monopoly, so why even try.

This motive was evidenced by the fact that these companies would gerrymander the definitions of smartphone and PDA to suggest that Microsoft was doing well in handheld devices when it clearly wasn’t. Only recently has it become too obvious to hide Apple’s success in PC sales or RIM and Apple’s blockbuster sales that have marginalized the entire Windows Mobile ecosystem.

PC market share is reported both as the split of PCs each hardware maker sells, and the number of machines that include a Windows license, which edged close to 98% over much of the 90s. It’s only been in the last few years that Apple has jumped from 2% of all of the PCs and servers sold worldwide to a figure closer to 10%. Prior to that, PC OS market share numbers existed primarily to suggest the nobody used Linux.

However, Apple’s market share doesn’t just rise as Apple sells more PCs. It’s also subject to shrink as the global market expands. For example, as the market for PCs has grown in India and China, Apple’s share has watered down, not because Apple’s share of the markets it serves has shrunk, but because the global market has expanded outside of Apple’s market.

The biggest recent expansion in PC sales has been the shift to a new category of the extreme low end of mini-laptops, euphemistically lauded as “netbooks.” Apple doesn’t sell a $400 mini-laptop. So compared to Acer and other companies that have rapidly embraced profitless mini-laptops as their best hope for expansion, Apple’s market share of all PCs sold has dropped.

Wild fluctuations in sales figures.

But that’s not the only reason Apple’s market share has slipped over the past quarter. Apple doesn’t update its offerings every few months as many PC makers do, choosing instead to ship a new updated version for most of its various product categories about every year. This results in rather wide fluctuations in the number and type of machines Apple sells on a quarterly basis, numbers that don’t reflect demand as much as they do the quality and nature of Apple’s unique supply flow at a given time.

Last fall, for example, Apple shipped a series of new unibody notebooks and then delayed the expected late fall release of a new iMac, resulting in a massive shift in sales toward portables. The company didn’t announce new desktops until deep into the first quarter, generating a particularly big lull in the company’s Mac sales as the MacBook surge died down and the lack of anything new made for a quiet several weeks after Macworld Expo.

In past years, Apple has introduced hardware at that expo, resulting in a first quarter bump. This year there was nothing, giving embittered pundits numbers to dance into their headlines to falsely suggest that consumers were abandoning the Mac rather than just waiting for the new models to ship.

Exaggerating the effects of this punctuated release schedule, Apple also serves highly seasonal markets, including its back to school education surge. The company is also weathering an economic slump that is hitting the education market particularly hard as local governments face drastic cuts. Those education Mac sales aren’t shifting to other PC makers, they’re just held up, waiting for funds.

Multiplying errors.

All of that indicates that Apple’s wildly changing market share figures have very little to do with the actual installed base of Mac users, which has been outpacing PC growth, particularly on the high end. Apple owns a plurality of the notebook market for machines above $1000, for example.

Apple also attracts a demographic willing to pay more for their overall experience. Well heeled PC users are the most likely to call up a service like the New York-based Rescuecom. That means an increase in support calls isn’t necessarily the result of a sudden new batch of less reliable machines. As Apple’s installed base goes up, more users are going to be around to call for help. Apple’s installed base has progressively grown from 20 million to well past 25 million in just the last few years. Apple also released new versions of iWork and iLife, an upgrade cycle that could similarly distort the call volume observed by Rescuecom.

This all adds up to two wildly meaningless numbers being combined to create a statistic that has only been published three times before: October 2006, October 2007, and December 2008. And now Rescuecom is releasing a new quarterly number for March 2009, based on a period that hasn’t been given the same market share numbers as previous reports? Comparing year over year sales might be meaningful, but comparing annual figures with a quarterly number is only something you’d do for dramatic reasons.

Rescuecom’s variables.

“If a user is calling Rescuecom, that means they’ve abandoned the manufacturer’s own support,” company CEO David Milman asserted to Computerworld on the release of its second set of figures. At that time, the company was praising Apple for leading in its statistics by a wide margin. “Apple’s score tells me that it has both great quality control and great support in place,” Milman said in 2007. “And that Apple is taking care of its customers though its internal support channel.”

But Apple’s support capacity and build quality isn’t the only variable subject to change. Rescuecom reported three months ago that the release of last year’s Vista SP1 and the emergence of new software properly supporting Vista resulted in a big drop off in service calls related to Vista. Further, the netbook sales surge of last fall was nearly all Windows XP machines, resulting in two reasons for Apple’s call volume to be a proportionally larger share of Rescuecom’s business regardless of whether more Mac users were calling in or not.

Milman also stated that “quite a few of the calls we get are for data recovery or to transfer data from an older computer to a newer one,” undermining any remaining basis for calling his company’s comparison of a PC vendor’s call proportion and their market share a predictor or even loosely correlated with computer reliability.

Update: Rescuecom isn’t even an authorized Apple repair center: Repair company promotes misleading Mac reliability rating

Marketing outrage.

The news here isn’t that Rescuecom is releasing nearly random numbers and suggesting that they mean something important. The real problem is the media jumping, uncritically, on random numbers and building it into a story that those numbers don’t really support and that no other facts support either, and then assigning it a sensationalist, linkbait headline.

As journalism becomes a business where the reporting of news is replaced with a practice of generating titillating, eye catching headlines as cheaply as possible, this is only going to get worse. We are now equally outraged about what some virtually unknown company’s statics must mean about Apple’s PC quality, the fact that a welfare mom was impregnated with eight more babies she can’t afford, and that the government has bailed out AIG while the company also paid its top employees millions in bonuses.

However, we’re only outraged in a temporary, busy sort of way, usually devoid of any real context, where we get slightly annoyed when we read the headline and then move on to the next outrage, which might be that scientists overstated something about global warming or that stimulus funds were spent on volcano monitoring.

We can’t afford to trade the education in current events that we desperately need the news media to accurately report to us for a daily dose of AM radio-style outrage and hee-haw funnies. Yet as long as our “news” is based on paraphrased PR statements from sources we’ve never heard from before that are assigned the most outrage-inducing headline possible, our depth of knowledge about the world around us is going to be as strong as a WalMart wardrobe and a McDonald’s diet.

In addition to blaming the media, we can blame ourselves. We’ve adopted RSS newsreaders and aggregators that up-vote stories, both of which favor and reward sites that generate the most outrage inducing headlines because in the rush to comment on how stupid a story is, we are likely to accidentally click on the ad for how to lose 30 pounds in a weekend.

Maybe it’s time to establish pure journalism as a necessary public education for Americans, and charter a series of news gathering operations that function like universities, but with the mandate to keep adults informed.

Did you like this article? Let me know. Comment here, in the Forum, or email me with your ideas.

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  • Per

    Nice article.

    It’s annoying that so few seem to aknowledge that there are problems with web 2.0-style “news reporting.” The problem is definitely not isolated to the US, we have our share here across the pond too. While the possibility of a more pluralistic media landscape is an attractive thought, it does place higher demands on those who consume media content.

    Not only should education focus more on the new media and its implications, the old media (newspapers and magazines) must wake up from their sleep. There’s a still a place for well-informed commentary, which RDM certainly proves. As long as the mainstream media are content with simply paraphrasing headlines from the large international news agencies, the problem will continue to grow.

    And really, nothing brings out the stupid in the tech enthusiast like Apple does. Misinformation is even easier to spread when people are already emotionally attached to a certain side. The voting systems on sites such as Digg are fueled by knee-jerk reactions rather than critical thought.

    Again, it’s wonderful to see someone with deep insights in the tech industry talk about ethics and the media. Keep up the good work!

  • Brau

    My mother in-law recently bought an iMac, partly at my behest, and then made her final decision after reading about Apple’s #1 satisfaction record in ‘Consumer Reports’ magazine. It all makes me wonder how CR came by those numbers when Apple doesn’t provide in house details. Who was is who said, There’s lies, damn lies, and statistics?

    For almost every Mac owner I know they have all had a positive experience with Apple service, except for my sister and me who have had unending painful experiences due to extremely flaky G5s. I honestly believe there’s a problem with that architecture that Apple does not want to admit and does their damnedest to deny.

    Apple repeatedly sent our Apple certified outlet multiple DOA “refurbished” replacement parts , costing us months delay without use of our computers. There is a mind-numbing policy within Applecare to repeatedly require a reinstall of the OS, even when it has been determined NOT to be a software issue (failing under netboot condition), gobbing up pointless hours and adding even more to the frustration level having to rebuild the system after each call for no good reason. More maddening was to hear techs glibly suggest, “Maybe the last update broke that feature”, without any technical basis and display a complete unwillingness to acknowledge that the same feature still exists and works fine on my other non-G5 Macs post update. With no explanations, they often pulled a rabbit out of a hat and suggested the fault must be caused by third party software, even though the problems exist on a default account after a new unaltered OS X installation. Apple overtly dragged things out by leveraging delays and frustration until the G5 warranty expired and told us we were SOL. Three years of unending “service” on a $5500 G5 Quad is a long time, only to get stiffed in the end, and has seriously challenged my “loyalty”. When it’s bad, it’s really bad.

    So, only 2 bad stories out of 15 mac users I know. Is that a “good” stat? The rest have never had a hardware based problem nor a G5. A recent report I read showed Apple’s satisfaction record pertaining to hardware issues is actually quite poor in comparison to a number of vendors with Toshiba taking top honors; an important distinction. Those who have had hardware troubles on Macs don’t seem to have the same glowing response. Ahh, there’s those damn statistics/lies again.

  • ring-of-fire

    Another wonderful article Daniel!

    The shoddy reporting Daniel describes does indeed have sweeping implications for the reporting of virtually all other news. Daniel is so right to point out the scandalous manner in which this so-called “news” is arrived at – ie: that trivialised, shallow, sensationalised, bread-and-circuses junk we get offered. And we do indeed have ourselves to blame to a large degree, for not taking off our mental blinkers and really opening our hearts and minds to what is happening around us.

    Taking it a little further: if we ignored this filtered, watered-down “news” that pipes to us from this handful of huge corporations, and instead share ideas directly (eg: via blogs and wikis), we could take a fresh approach to a whole raft of issues facing humanity. The answer to so many of these issues is surely staring us right in the face! – like the economic crisis, for instance. Sharing ideas and resources more freely could take humanity forward in leaps and bounds. What are we waiting for?

  • jddst19

    It’s hard for us to aggregate data points on our own, so we need other sources of reliability statistics. I don’t know whose are useful, but perhaps you protest too much. Do you have alternate reliability figures from a better source?

    My personal experience was that Apple put defective dual-layer DVD drives in the 24″ iMac. I looked at websites about it and people were largely complaining about the same thing. They tended to show signs of breaking nearing the end of the 1-year warranty period, but break afterward. If you ask their authorized service centers to replace it, they’ll only replace it with an identical, unreliable drive.

    I used to be very proud of the reliability of the macs, but I’m wondering when the next surprise will be on this iMac. I know, I should have bought the extended warranty. But to say, on the one hand, that the stuff is reliable, and on the other that you need a warranty because it’ll break after 1 year, is pretty bad.

  • An Accident

    After reading your comments on the declining quality of journalism, I thought you might like to watch the brand new Charlie Brooker TV series “Newswipe” that started on BBC 4 last night.
    Somebody has uploaded it to YouTube already, but it might not be up for long:
    Episode 1 Part 1 (parts 2 and 3 are linked on the page)
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FrhEYCaRNcQ

    Charlie Brooker previously made “Screenwipe” which took a similar look at TV in general, but one episode of Screenwipe focussed on the declining standard of (predominately UK-based) TV news and featured a brilliant segment by Adam Curtis (Century of the Self, Power of Nightmares, The Trap). Newswipe is an entire series spun off from this episode and so far it looks like essential viewing.

  • darwiniandude

    Apple used PowerPC chips, then later G3 versions, then G4’s, and finally G5’s. They then switched to Intel…. I think this says something. :)

    If you ever have issues with a clean load of the OS etc, just use another hard disk or an external or something, give them their fresh load if they want it, but keep your active installation anyway, use superduper or something.

    My intel machines have been faultless.

  • nat

    Maybe it’s time to establish pure journalism as a necessary public education for Americans, and charter a series of news gathering operations that function like universities, but with the mandate to keep adults informed.
    How much will that cost!? Damn tax and spend liberals! First it’s volcano monitoring, now uh (let’s see, how can I make mandatory journalism classes sound bad…) you wanna draft my kid into your Liberal – and thus, Communist – Media!?

    With newspapers dying, it seems like the perfect time to require journalism in middle school and high school, not only to teach how to be a proficient journalist, but also to recognize the difference between serious journalism and faux journalism.

  • plasticsyntax

    @Brau

    For reports on product satisfaction, Consumer Reports collects statistics from their readers directly.

  • Phildikian

    Great article Dan. I haven’t commented in a while, but still love reading RDM. Spot on regarding the reprehensible news outlets our world has now which I think only creates a downward spiral kind of problem. As people still use these outlets to “inform” themselves, the outlets look to that as being “what the people want” even though they aren’t really giving anyone a real choice. The only solution is to not click on those worthless stories, cancel your subscription to that newspaper that looks more and more like a supermarket tabloid (you know, the ones that contain 5% ‘news’ and 95% advertisements) and change the channel when the “breaking” TV news starts.

    @Brau.
    I too firmly believe there was a terrible mess with Apple’s G5’s. I have had horrible problems with mine. In the 13 years I have been a Mac user I have never had such a problematic machine – and unfortunately that seems to be a lot of people who bought any G5 Mac. So far the Intel machines don’t seem to have that, but something definitely makes me wonder what happened with those damn G5’s….

  • thyvillageidiot

    Thanks for the analysis. I especially enjoyed the soapbox bit at the end; I hope to see more articles of that nature.

  • jdb

    Now would be a good time to reference Clay Shirky’s latest missive:

    http://www.shirky.com/weblog/2009/03/newspapers-and-thinking-the-unthinkable/

    The basic theme is that we are in for a bit of wild ride until the internet shakeout of news media is complete. Newspapers are dead and there is nothing to replace them yet.

  • PhilipWing

    People forget that sensationalized news has been around for over a century, with Hearst papers being called “Yellow Press” back in the late 19th Century.

    If Rescuecom thinks the caller has given up on Apple company tech support , they should ask at least a couple of questions:

    Did you call 1-800-SOS-APPL?

    Did you keep an appointment with an Apple Genius?

    I am aware that some of the Geniuses are faulty (one suggested reinstalling system software because a Software Update downloaded slowly. Definitely a Windows person… :)), but most are decent at their jobs.

  • MarkyMark

    As was mentioned previously, the satisfaction / reliability type of data that Consumer Reports publishes is virtually all self-reported on some kind of questionnaire (I’m a subscriber and used to fill some of them out myself). As anyone who understands statistics knows, this type of info is tricky because its not remotely a random sample, and people often don’t understand the questions clearly and fill in any old response that pops into their head as they rush through the form. So the subset of 1) CR subscribers who 2) self-elect to respond is wildly skewed in relation to the overall population, something which they know very well but choose not to make a point of, and dissemble on when challenged. Recall the controversy several years ago when CR published that a significant percentage of Mac users reported detecting viruses and spyware, when in fact there were no such Mac OS problems in existence at the time.

    http://www.macdailynews.com/index.php/weblog/comments/6533/

  • Brau

    @ darwiniandude

    Thanks. I wish I’d thought of that simple solution *before* I made those calls. I should have kept a fresh install on my second HD and just booted from that. Could have saved me a ton of grief. Instead I (naively?) believed if I faithfully followed their instructions they would eventually do the right thing. Boy was I wrong. It has been hands-down the worst warranty experience I have ever had on any product. If this had been my first Mac I doubt I’d ever buy another. Oddly, it’s somewhat comforting to hear confirmation on an Apple-centric site like this, that others have had similar troubles with G5s.

    I had:
    a Quadra 604 – no problems
    a 1998 Sage G3 iMac AV – still running Panther flawlessly
    a G4 Quicksilver – no problems, still running Leopard.
    a G4 PowerBook (2004) – memory slot issue – does a double take upon waking and won’t recognize more than 1.2GB RAM but works fine otherwise.
    a G5 Quad – unending power management issues from spontaneously narcoleptic, to not waking, not sleeping, stalling, freezing, etc. Each Apple update brings a new order of the same troubles despite every part being replaced three times.

    I’d agree with Steve Jobs who once said “Over the last few years we’ve let things slip a bit.” (albeit regarding Snow Leopard containing better code)

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