Apple. you call this tech support?

This is why I don’t like Apple. Yesterday I worked on a new dual-processor G4. It was intermittent. Didn’t want to drive the monitor half the time. After re-seating the video card and monitor cable a number of times and installing the hardware the computer needed, it started giving an error message at boot:

The built-in memory test has detected a problem with cache memory. Please contact a service technician for assistance.

So I called Apple. You get 90 days’ free support, period. (You also only get a one-year warranty unless you buy the AppleCare extended warranty, which I’m loathe to do. But I we’d probably better do it for this machine since it all but screams “lemon” every time we boot it.) So, hey, we can’t get anywhere with this, so let’s start burning up the support period.

The hold time was about 15 seconds. I mention this because that’s the only part of the call that impressed me and my mother taught me to say whatever nice things I could. I read the message to the tech, who then put me on hold, then came back in about a minute.

“That message is caused by a defective memory module. Replace the third-party memory module to solve the problem,” she said.

“But the computer is saying the problem is with cache, not with the memory,” I told her. (The cache for the G4 resides on a small board along with the CPU core, sort of like the first Pentium IIs, only it plugs into a socket.) She repeated the message to me. I was very impressed that she didn’t ask whether we’d added any memory to the system (of course we had–Apple factory memory would never go bad, I’m sure).

I seem to remember at least one of my English teachers telling me to write exactly what I mean. Obviously the Mac OS 9 programmers didn’t have any of my English teachers.

I took the memory out and cleaned it with a dollar bill, then put it back in. The system was fine for the rest of the afternoon after this, but I have my doubts about this system. If the problem returns, I’ll replace the memory. When that turns out not to be the problem, I don’t know what I’ll do.

We’ve been having some problems lately with Micron tech support as well, but there’s a big difference there. With Apple, if you don’t prove they caused the problem, well, it’s your problem, and they won’t lift a finger to help you resolve it. Compare this to Micron. My boss complained to Micron about the length of time it was taking to resolve a problem with one particular system. You know what the Micron tech said? “If this replacement CPU doesn’t work, I’ll replace the system.” We’re talking a two-year-old system here.

Now I know why Micron has more business customers than Apple does. When you pay a higher price for a computer (whether that’s buying a Micron Client Pro instead of a less-expensive, consumer-oriented Micron Millenia, or an Apple G4 instead of virtually any PC), you expect quick resolution to your computer problems because, well, your business doesn’t slow down just because your computer doesn’t work right. Micron seems to get this. Apple doesn’t.

And that probably has something to do with why our business now has 25 Micron PCs for every Mac. There was a time when that situation was reversed.

The joke was obvious, but… I still laughed really hard when I read today’s User Friendly. I guess I’m showing my age here by virtue of getting this.

Then again, three or four years back, a friend walked up to me on campus. “Hey, I finally got a 64!” I gave him a funny look. “Commodore 64s aren’t hard to find,” I told him. Then he laughed. “No, a Nintendo 64.”

It’s funny how nicknames recycle themselves.

For old times’ sake. I see that Amiga, Inc. must be trying to blow out the remaining inventory of Amiga 1200s, because they’re selling this machine at unprecedented low prices. I checked out www.softhut.com just out of curiosity, and I can get a bare A1200 for $170. A model with a 260MB hard drive is $200.  On an Amiga, a drive of that size is cavernous, though I’d probably eventually rip out the 260-megger and put in a more modern drive.

The A1200 was seriously underpowered when it came out, but at that price it’s awfully tempting. It’s less than used A1200s typically fetch on eBay, when they show up. I can add an accelerator card later after the PowerPC migration plan firms up a bit more. And Amigas tend to hold their value really well. And I always wanted one.

I’m so out of the loop on the Amiga it’s not even funny, but I found it funny that as I started reading so much started coming back. The main commands are stored in a directory called c, and it gets referred to as c: (many crucial Amiga directories are referenced this way, e.g. prefs: and devs: ). Hard drives used to be DH0:, DF1:, etc., though I understand they changed that later to HD0:, HD1:, etc.

So what was the Amiga like? I get that question a lot. Commodore released one model that did run System V Unix (the Amiga 3000UX), but for the most part it ran its own OS, known originally as AmigaDOS and later shortened to AmigaOS. Since the OS being developed internally at Amiga, Inc., and later at Commodore after they bought Amiga, wasn’t going to be ready on time for a late 1984/early 1985 release, Commodore contracted with British software developer Metacomco to develop an operating system. Metacomco delivered a Tripos-derived OS, written in MC68000 assembly language and BCPL, that offered fully pre-emptive multitasking, multithreading, and dynamic memory allocation (two things even Mac OS 9 doesn’t do yet–OS 9 does have multithreading but its multitasking is cooperative and its memory allocation static).

Commodore spent the better part of the next decade refining and improving the OS, gradually replacing most of the old BCPL code with C code, stomping bugs, adding features and improving its looks. The GUI never quite reached the level of sophistication that Mac OS had, though it certainly was usable and had a much lower memory footprint. The command line resembled Unix in some ways (using the / for subdirectories rather than ) and DOS in others (you used devicename:filename to address files). Some command names resembled DOS, others resembled Unix, and others neither (presumably they were Tripos-inspired, but I know next to nothing about Tripos).

Two modern features that AmigaOS never got were virtual memory and a disk cache. As rare as hard drives were for much of the Amiga’s existance this wasn’t missed too terribly, though Commodore announced in 1989 that AmigaDOS 1.4 (never released) would contain these features. AmigaDOS 1.4 gained improved looks, became AmigaOS 2.0, and was released without the cache or virtual memory (though both were available as third-party add-ons).

As for the hardware, the Amiga used the same MC68000 series of CPUs that the pre-PowerPC Macintoshes used. The Amiga also had a custom chipset that provided graphics and sound coprocessing, years before this became a standard feature on PCs. This was an advantage for years, but became a liability in the early 1990s. While Apple and the cloners were buying off-the-shelf chipsets, Commodore continued having to develop their own for the sake of backward compatibility. They revved the chipset once in 1991, but it was too little, too late. While the first iteration stayed state of the art for about five years, it only took a year or two for the second iteration to fall behind the times, and Motorola was having trouble keeping up with Intel in the MHz wars (funny how history repeats itself), so the Amigas of 1992 and 1993 looked underpowered. Bled to death by clueless marketing and clueless management (it’s arguable who was worse), Commodore bled engineers for years and fell further and further behind before finally running out of cash in 1993.

Though the Amiga is a noncontender today, its influence remains. It was the first commercially successful personal computer to feature color displays of more than 16 colors (it could display up to 4,096 at a time), stereo sound, and pre-emptive multitasking–all features most of us take for granted today. And even though it was widely dismissed as a gaming machine in its heyday, the best-selling titles for the computer that ultimately won the battle are, you guessed it, games.

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