The Core Dump

The Core Dump is the personal blog of Nic Lindh, a Swedish-American pixel-pusher living in Phoenix, Arizona.

[By Nic Lindh on Sunday, 24 April 2011]

Something in the water: 10 years of the Apple Store

Nic talks about the early days of the Apple Store and how it came damn close to killing him.

The beginning

I was on the original crew that opened the Biltmore, Arizona Apple Store back in 2002. It’s hard to believe it’s already been 10 years since the first Apple Store.

If you came in to the Biltmore store during the time I worked there, I was the big guy who looked like he wanted to jump off a bridge. Turns out I’m not cut out for retail. Really, really not cut out for retail. More on that later.

So why was I working there in the first place? Two reasons. The first of course that I was a huge Apple nut ever since I first started hanging out in the computer lab stocked with Mac Plus machines and ImageWriters at the University of Louisiana in 1989. And still am, despite the scars of the Apple Store. It’s that I believe in technology and especially believe in using the best technology. Which is still Apple for the particular things I do. If somebody else catches up and deploys better technology for my use case, I will switch in a heartbeat. It’s not a religion, it’s a matter of leverage. For example, I switched full-time to Windows NT in the late nineties. I needed a machine that could run Photoshop and play mp3s without stuttering. My Mac couldn’t, so I bought a Dell for half the cost of a new Mac and ugly as it was, it let me work more efficiently. Despite its many warts, Windows NT could actually multitask.

The second reason I took a Genius job at the Apple Store was the economy. Remember, this was the tech nuclear winter of 2001. I’d been laid off from my dot-bomb job along with everybody else in tech. It was grim.

This was before the iPod, before the iPhone, a time when Apple was struggling and the company’s future was all but certain. Back in 2001 Apple had one hit: the iMac. Remember how awesome it was that you could buy an all-in-one computer with trans-effing-lucent plastic in different colors and a super-weird mouse where you couldn’t tell which side was up?

Probably not.

Apple back then was a bit player. Nobody knew if the company would survive. At that time all it really had was a hard-core base of customers who more often than not had left rationality way behind in the rear view mirror when it came to computers.

(Those of us who went to work in the stores certainly skewed to the lunatic fringe of Apple nuts. Despite the employment process wisely putting a lot of weight on weeding out the fanatics, more than one unbalanced freak managed to end up on the showroom floor wearing a black t-shirt with a white apple across the chest and proceeded to spend their work hours smiting unbelievers. Those people tended to not last long, but to everybody else’s embarrassment, they were a definite part of the scene.)

And the company was switching operating systems, going from Mac OS 9 to Mac OS X, which was a huge gamble and a massive technology switch. If you were really good at working with and troubleshooting the classic Mac OS, your skills had just been rendered antique and useless.

There was tension among the MacMacs. Twenty years of accumulated skills were being rendered void.

So, we’re in the era of Apple the fallen giant, Apple before the iPod takes off, the era of is Apple going to make it? And most of the traffic in the stores consists of MacMacs.

Not to mince words, there were some scary mofos coming in to the Apple Store. People who seriously needed professional help. People who had decided that using a Mac was their primary reason for being. Those people were so earnest, so sincere in their fanaticism, they made working the Genius Bar a cut-rate suicide hotline experience.

The Genius Bar

Ah, yes, the Genius Bar. In retrospect, this was a brilliant idea and a huge traffic driver for the stores. But back in the early days, the Genius Bar was, to put it mildly, in flux. The boundaries of what we were supposed to do and not do, what to charge for and what was free seemed to change on a daily basis.

But the customers did not. There were three basic kinds of customers.

  1. The wanna-be. This was the guy (yes, all men) who wanted to be a Genius, but flunked out for personality reasons. This was the original MacMac—Apple is a religion and he is an acolyte and now he is angry about not being one of the chosen, so he has to show up at the Genius Bar to challenge the faith of the Geniuses and prove his worth.

It seems silly now, but we dealt with this kind of guy on a daily basis. It was profoundly sad and dispiriting. I can only hope they’ve stopped tormenting the Geniuses or died off at this point.

  1. The Angry Oldie. For some reason quite a lot of snowbirds had purchased Macs. They would roll in dragging the 6-year-old Mac they intended to nurse along until the silicon turned into ammonia with absolutely no thought whatsoever into ever upgrading to newer gear. And would regale you endlessly about how the fact that they once spent over a thousand dollars on a Mac meant you were their bitch for-effing-ever.

Angry oldies were not a good time. Deep breath. No, they were not.

  1. The normal Mac user. The person who purchased a Mac then at some point had a problem and went in to get it taken care of. These were the people you took the job expecting to help, and in general they were very happy to have somebody help them.

They made you feel like a human being with a reason for existing. If only there had been more of them.

Something in the water

No doubt, you’re not having a good day when your Mac goes berzerk on you and you have to drag it down to the Apple Store, carrying the hump of useless and expensive plastic through the mall. You’re sweaty, tired, and angry.

When the stores first opened we had bottles of water to offer customers. Presumably it was some kind of riff on the “bar” in “Genius Bar” concept somebody in marketing came up with. And it was fantastic. It was astounding to see what happened to people when you offered them a bottle of water. People who were seriously ready to stab somebody would completely deflate and be pathetically thankful just for getting a bit of water. It was the best tool we had to calm people down.

That water was pure magic.

So of course they took it away.

There were a lot of rumors about why the water disappeared, but I never heard anything official, so I have no idea why that decision was taken. Seriously, though, if you’re creating any kind of customer support situation, have bottles of water available. It’s magic.

The iPod saves the day

Then the iPod took off. To the point that the people who used to yell into their cell phones that they were “at the Mac store” would now yell that they were “at the iPod store”.

Seriously, there are two giant lit apples flanking the entrance. It’s the Apple Store. But no, “Mac store” and “iPod store.” I haven’t spent enough time hanging out there lately, but I’m sure if you do you’ll hear some nimrod yell into his cell phone about being at the “iPhone store.” I don’t know. It’s just that there are two giant Apples at the door. How hard is it to take the hint?

As a nerd, it was unbelievable. Sure, I loved my iPod, all five gigs of storage. But normal people loved it, too! People who had no idea of how to turn on a computer were showing up and buying iPods. And they were using them and loving them!

It’s always hard to figure out the chicken and the egg, but I’m personally convinced Apple would be a dead company today if it hadn’t been for the iPod and its halo effect.

As a Genius it was difficult, though: Troubleshooting an iPod does not exactly require you to be Sherlock Holmes. If a reset doesn’t work, it’s borked and you replace it. Boom. That’s it. Welcome to fast food tech support.

The end for me

I’ve never told anybody but close friends this story, but the reason I quit the Apple Store was simple: survival. It was the most miserable work experience I ever had. To ibid myself: I’m not cut out for retail. I’m not blaming anybody at Apple or any coworkers or anything like that. It was just retail. Retail is a special beast.

One night I was driving home on the I-10 after work in the darkness, and saw a highway patrol car next to me. And heard my own voice in my head say: “Maybe I should kill a cop.”

And I realized I had to quit that job.

Many years later, I haven’t killed that cop. The Apple Stores are packed, and Apple is doing great. And so am I.

You have thoughts? Send me an email!