A Minor Rant on Apple Distribution

Having again taken ill with a (by now traditional) holiday cold - which may or may not be related with yesterdays' excursion to the countryside, where I was exposed to 6C temperatures and an unaccounted-for wind chill factor, I feel the urge to rant on about the way it is damn near impossible to obtain custom-configured Apple hardware in Portugal without ludicrous waiting times and/or internal lobbying (which I sadly cannot take advantage of).

A friend of mine offered to buy my 20" iMac G4 a couple of months ago, since he knows I take very good care of my equipment and that I was likely to want to upgrade this year.

Which, I must confess, had crossed my mind, but wasn't really required - the G4 is more than enough for my endeavors, and the G5's appeal is more about getting a 802.11g-enabled desktop to relocate my home office than having the chance of playing Doom III at über-high resolution.

The chance of renewing my hardware at a fraction of the cost, however, made it a lot more interesting, so I called up FNAC on November 12th and ordered a 20" G5 iMac, complete with 1GB RAM, AirPort Extreme and the ever-elusive internal Bluetooth module, which is a traditional right pain to obtain in Portugal.

Just to give you an idea of what it's like, getting the equivalent of the Apple store's custom factory configurations is pretty much impossible over here, so much so that during last year a lot of people I know ended up ordering PowerBooks for something as simple as built-in Bluetooth - the added cost more than compensated the hassle of trying to obtain the iBook's internal Bluetooth module. Fortunately, you can order it separately for a while now, and iBooks now ship with Portuguese keyboards - but I still had to order one separately for mine three years ago.

And before people point out the number of small Portuguese retailers that carry Macs, I called FNAC because they're the closest thing we have to a fully legitimate Apple store here. In short, they have the guts to be selling Macs out in the open (and in significant volume) for a few years now, and I would rather support sales of a large retailer that carries Apple products and provides them with some visibility than one of the many little nook-and-cranny shops that nobody knows about.

You can't walk in most of those small shops and leave with a Mac in hand - you have to go in, order one, and wait, praying that the local distributor deems it worthy of having its orders fulfilled. FNAC, due to its relatively high sales volume, provided me with a bit more assurance in that regard.

But despite being a place I do a lot of my shopping in, FNAC has absolutely lousy phone service. You have to wait at least 15 minutes to get a human on the line (plus another minute or so for your call to be forwarded to the computer section), and even though the people are knowledgeable and efficient, it's amazing how the Colombo store can deign to ignore callers for that long - even if they do sell concert tickets and all sorts of other things, the least they could do is staff the phone lines.

After some minutes in phone limbo, I managed to corner an affable attendant who actually knew what I was talking about, warned me about the traditional 3 to 5 week order period (the Apple distributor in Portugal is widely known for less than stellar delivery times), took note of my order, but did not issue me with an order tracking number. Of any kind.

Which is odd, of course. Even more odd is the fact that every time I show up on the store and ask about my order nobody seems to even think of using the omnipresent computer terminals embedded in the counter tops (and which, by the way, appear to run a custom AS400 terminal emulator) to either check stocks or, at the very least, my order status.

They very readily tell me, every single time, that all iMacs that arrived (save the ones on display) were to satisfy a rather large backlog, and that custom configurations had been postponed - by the distributor. They were very courteous and self-conscious about it, and it was plain that their hands were tied.

So, let me see if I understand this. I am willing to spend well over 2K Euro on a computer, already know precisely what I want, order it well in advance of Xmas, and nobody (from the attendants to the distributor) can tell me when it's due?

You know something's up when the attendant, pressured to validate your order details, starts fidgeting and says "oh, we have it all, but it's on the back office". And it doesn't help that, under further pressure, he jots down your name, the order details, and your mobile number on a piece of paper - with the AS400 terminal glowing underneath the glass pane he's leaning on.

Now, I know we've just gone through Xmas, which is a killer period for any sort of business. And I'm fully cognizant of the fact that FNAC sells a lot more DVDs, books and CDs than Macs, but despite the fact that attendants were always sympathetic and eager to help (even to the point of trying to phone the local distributor while I waited), you'd expect things to be a bit more organized, no?

The sad bit is that, ultimately, it's not FNAC's fault. And (despite their inability to fulfill orders having reached urban legend proportions), I don't think it's the distributor's fault, either.

Well, maybe I do. Still, there are so few Mac users in Portugal and the scene was so dominated by a small band of lobbyists close to the local distributor that being outspoken against them was deemed unwise a few years back, so I won't press the point (you will notice that I am not mentioning them by name).

No, I'll just chalk it up to bad timing on my part, unprecedented demand for the 20" iMac, and a few things that need improving in the Apple retail chain here in Portugal.

Cupertino, we have a problem.