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So my Father-in-law Walks Into an Apple Store…



For the past four years we’ve struggled to get my in-laws set up with video conferencing and media sharing. They live in a very small town in Pennsylvania, while three of their kids are in California and a fourth is in Illinois, which means they miss out on quite a bit. I can’t count the number of times we’ve tried to show them how to access various media sharing sites and use Skype. We’d given them computers, webcams, tutorials, etc. over the years and they still struggled. The other night was the last straw.

On Tuesday night my wife and I shared a video with several family members via Dropbox. Everyone else was able to view it on their various devices, but my wife’s parents just couldn’t get it to play. The phone rang and my in-laws complained to my wife about the video not working. According to my mother in law, clicking on the video link made caused a small box to pop up for a split second and disappear. The video wouldn’t play in their PC’s browser and it apparently was nowhere to be found on the desktop. I’m just about 100% sure they weren’t doing something right or were getting an error message pop-up, and I’m sure I could’ve walked them through the problem, but I refused to take the phone from my wife. I told her instead to tell her parents to go to an Apple store and get an iPhone if they wanted to chat or see any more photos or videos of their kids. And that I’d pay for the damn thing if it meant that I wouldn’t have to talk my father in law through messing with browser preferences, updating Quicktime, etc.

My mother-in-law overheard me raising my voice and told my wife I sounded angry and rude. I was. Despite having a computer engineer for a son and myself as a son in law, they still struggle with what a lot of us consider the most basic computing tasks. I wasn’t angry at my wife’s parents, I was more angry at the fact that  consumer technology, which I generally love, is still much too complicated for a large segment of the population. Products and services may seem intuitive to younger generations, or geeks that think about tech everyday, but inexperienced users and older generations still face major frustration points for a number of reasons. My comments in the background of the call didn’t seem to be received that well as the call ended abruptly and we didn’t hear back from them.

But then last night my wife’s iPhone 4 rang with a Facetime call from her dad’s number. She quickly answered and on the other end were her parents sitting in their dining room, 3,000 miles away.  Both had big smiles and it was the first ‘facetime’ they’d had with us since they visited back in June.

Apparently, my father-in-law took my threat/offer seriously. He visited to find the nearest Apple Store, which was about 15 miles away in Fullerton, PA. He arrived right around opening and told the Apple rep what he was interested in doing with an iPhone. My father-in-law spent over three hours at the Apple store. That sounds like a long time, but he wasn’t dealing with any problems. Instead, he was getting help…lots of it. After telling the Apple rep that this was his first iDevice, he was treated to an extended setup and tutorial session. The rep taught him how to use visual voice mail, make calls, take photos, check his email, buy apps, browse the web and place Facetime calls. The rep invited him back for iPhone classes and made sure his email account was set up properly.

What a difference a day makes. The in-laws that were handcuffed by computer problems for years are now free to perform many of the tasks that matter to them.

Apple’s combination of easy to use devices and best-in-class customer support are the reason why my friends and relatives (aged 4 to 88) are buying more and more iGear. The vast majority of them couldn’t tell you a thing about their devices’ specs, but almost all of them rave about these devices.  Apple  doesn’t offer a lot of options and its products aren’t perfect. But who cares? They sell their devices at a premium compared to the competition, but this is a price many are willing to pay in exchange for simplicity and service. These same customers are also willing to pay for simplicity when it comes to downloading content, such as movies, music and apps. Geeks might transcode DVDs or find Torrents, but the average consumer is never going to do that. They’d rather let Apple ring their digital cash register to avoid the headaches.

It’s the focus on simplicity and service will likely make my father-in-law a repeat Apple customer. He’s much more likely to buy an Apple TV than have to go through the hassle of learning how to hook up a laptop to his TV to watch online videos and Netflix on the big screen.

As I mentioned before, Apple’s products are far from perfect, but that’s better than the alternative. Take for example, a recent media briefing with AMD. They were demonstrating how a dad could edit an HD movie on his home-office desktop and stream it to the family’s HDTV in the living room. All that was needed was a second desktop (HTPC), a gyroscopic mouse that would control the host PC in the home office, and a spool of cable. The AMD rep was excited that you could access both streaming content and all the content from the home-office PC for just a few hundred bucks, plus the cost of a desktop for a living room. I told him that in the real world nobody would do that. He got kinda upset and insisted there were lots of ‘digital dads’ that would in fact run a setup like this since you could buy everything you needed from Best Buy. Apple’s answer to this solution? A $99 box that does much of the same thing.

In general, people want to enjoy technology, not tinker with it. PC and mobile phone manufacturers need to take Apple’s lead and do more to simplify everything about their consumer products. They should also invest much more heavily in consumer training. Right now, the only in-person interaction most consumers have with HP, Dell, Toshiba, etc. are when they purchase a product and when they return it because it’s ‘broken.’ It’s time that they start aiming to acquire raving fans rather than just move units.



  1. dstrauss

    09/02/2010 at 12:28 pm


  2. aftermath

    09/02/2010 at 1:36 pm

    I can’t possibly agree with most of the conclusions drawn or causes inferred by this post, but it still makes me smile. While Apple is not the best choice for older people and/or people out of touch with technology, I can certainly agree that, of all of the segments of the consumer technology market available, Apple’s products are probably most appropriate for older people and/or people out of touch with technology.

    • Xavier

      09/02/2010 at 8:50 pm

      Nice play on words aftermath. As I mentioned, Apple products are not perfect, but can you tell me any other phone/computer company that would spend over three hours training my father in law on how to use a device, much less offer complimentary ongoing training?

      • Brett Gilbertson

        09/04/2010 at 5:37 am

        I do, and I’ve built a significant business from a backyard in Australia on it. I personally spend at least 2 hours training every customer I sell a Tablet PC to (advanced and novice alike) on how to get the best out of their tablet pc (as do all of our staff) and man does it work for them … and for us! Satisfaction all round.

        It’s not about the platform (although from a tablet perspective ours is infinatley better), but it is about the training and service… absolutely key! Wake up Tablet PC resellers… it’s your job!

        The big companies (apart from Apple) are too daft to get this, but the little guys can make a big difference.

  3. Alan

    09/02/2010 at 4:54 pm

    It’s interesting – I think Apple create some nice products but if you don’t buy into their whole ecosystem and try and mix things (iTunes on PC with an iPhone) then it certainly isn’t as slick. Also over here in the UK there aren’t nearly as many Apple stores so most interactions people have are when they have problems – certainly quite a few friends had trouble with the iOS 4 update and lots of O2 users are still having problems with data charges when roaming abroad. I appreciate Android isn’t quite as friendly for the complete novice but I really appreciate the extra flexibility it provides and love not having to install any software on a desktop machine to use it!

    • Xavier

      09/02/2010 at 9:00 pm

      There are lots of areas in the U.S. without Apple stores and I agree, the customer experience isn’t nearly the same for customers that need to do everything by phone. While Apple will help anyone with a Mac or iOS4 device at a store, phone support is a premium service after a few weeks.

      In the San Francisco area there seems to be an Apple store in every major shopping district. You can just wander into a store with a problem and employees will generally go above and beyond to help you. It’s a very nice bonus that nobody else offers.

  4. Tim

    09/02/2010 at 9:59 pm

    I’d just like to note that the Apple TV bit at the end of the article isn’t exactly a unique Apple invention. The functionality of a media streamer has been around in various boxes for years, so I don’t think it’s fair to give Apple credit for an idea that isn’t theirs.

    On a related note, what crazy AMD rep thought an HTPC was a good idea for streaming media? Surely the whole point of an HTPC is for local media, when streaming boxes like Roku, Sling, Apple TV, etc etc are much cheaper than an HTPC and simpler to set up and use?

    • Xavier Lanier

      09/03/2010 at 9:21 am

      The Apple TV isn’t 100% original by a long shot. A Roku box or one of WD/Seagate’s TV adapters will stream media from Netflix and local storage just fine. What is unique with the Apple TV is that you can tap into content from an iPhone, iPad or Mac.
      What is unique is that I can send my father in law back to that Apple store and he can get a thorough demo/tutorial for free. As I mentioned in the article, it’s the service, not the features that matter to a lot of people.

      • Tim

        09/03/2010 at 12:27 pm

        But at that point in the article, you are no longer talking about service, you’re talking about the specific product

        “As I mentioned before, Apple’s products are far from perfect, but that’s better than the alternative.”

        I’m just pointing out that the product mentioned is in no way different that the actual alternative, you just compared it to an unrealistic one.

        • Xavier Lanier

          09/03/2010 at 12:34 pm

          To clarify- my stance is that a grade B product with excellent support is far better than a grade A product with crappy support/service.

          Some of Apple’s products are indeed as good/better than the competition- Grade A in my book. Combine that with in-person service and it’s a real win for those that aren’t comfortable/unable to tinker with gadgets.

  5. Tim2

    09/02/2010 at 11:13 pm

    Unlike Youtube (and Youtube is practically synonymous with web video) where it’s all done on the web, going to the main Dropbox website and seeing that big ‘ole Download Dropbox box, for I guess, just to share videos, maybe?, lost me. Download a program just to share videos?

    Many actual average middle and working-class consumers shop at Target or Wal-Mart for their gear at reasonable prices, and the gear does gets used. Alot of the apparently, 150 million copies of Windows 7 are in machines that are being used by, give or take, 500 million Facebookers to update what’s on their mind.

    If it’s Explorer 6 on Windows 98, then there’s definitely very little hope in getting that small box to pop up. So, maybe one of those dual core Acer netbooks paired with Chrome, use the built-in webcam for video Skype (now Skype, you gotta download, but seems like a whole lot of people’s on there, so it must not that be hard to set-up), might fit the bill nicely.

    You can watch Netflix online there too after the Skype video chat. And pull out your camera’s SD card and plug it into the Acer to see pictures you’ve taken. And the Acer’s available from the Home Shopping Network for less than $500.

    And if you want simple, there are Nokias, hardy as tanks, just for talking and texting, battery lasts days of constant use.

    • Xavier Lanier

      09/03/2010 at 9:26 am

      When you share videos on Dropbox recipients just get an email with a link to the video. No installation necessary at all.
      Yes, I’m fully aware that most people run Windows, but for me- it’s not Windows vs. Mac. It’s great customer service vs. almost non-existant customer service. Hardware isn’t a problem for my in-laws. My brother-in-law’s set them up with a nice desktop, we’ve sent them a pair of decent laptops over the years. They all have more power than an Acer netbook and relatively current OS’s/Software.

  6. Mike

    09/03/2010 at 4:25 am

    An apple commercial?
    It’s great you like apple and I am happy for you and your family; but, this concept that apple just works and it’s all great all the time is pure nonsense.
    Apple is like any monder computer tech – it is great when it works and crap when it doesn’t.
    And lets not even get started on the BS that is always works with apple.

    • Kevin

      09/03/2010 at 7:15 am

      True, Mac’s are great when it works and crap when it doesn’t. Apple has done 2 things about this:
      1) The level of failure is lifted much higher. Basic users don’t fail as much at the initial setup and usage.

      2) Real customer support (especially if you’re near a store) so when you do hit the failure point you have some place useful to fall back and recover from the failure.

      I run linux servers, I support windows servers and desktops, but i far prefer my Mac for my own use. A nice combination of handling the simple things for me, but not blocking me from the more complex stuff I want to play with.

    • Xavier Lanier

      09/03/2010 at 10:01 am

      Not an Apple commercial at all. There are many things I don’t like about my own Macs and we criticize Apple from time to time here at GBM. You’re absolutely right, Apple products don’t always work- which is why it’s so important for consumers to be able to waltz into a store and talk to people.

  7. Franklin F Hartranft

    09/03/2010 at 10:27 am

    I enjoyed your article. I started with MACs back in the 80s and jumped to Windows with version 3.11. After we bought iPhones we went back to MACs at home, although I still have to use a PC at work. Our return to the MAC has actually been a bit frustrating, but we’ve worked through it, mostly. The big difference is customer support, just as you wrote. The naysayers’ above seem to be missing or ignoring that basic assertion. Apples cost more, but you can always get expert support when you need it. We have an Apple Store four miles away, but I usually work through the website. It’s just easier, and their on-line support is the best in the business too, by a wide margin. They’re not perfect, no, but they’re better than everybody else. That’s the punchline from an old joke. “I don’t have to outrun the bear; I only have to out run you.” If they can keep this up, I think they have a bright future.

    • Pyrotechnomimus

      09/07/2010 at 6:06 pm

      I would agree except that in a more realistic note, the amount of elderly folks who don’t use technology very well, will soon be gone. The level of sophistication that’s necessary to run a modern windows/linux/apple computer is very little compared to even 20 or 30 years ago, when it was a realm of only very select individuals. And many more of the older generation are getting to use these various devices, sometimes with frustration, but then again I meet quite a few tech savvy older folks as well.

      The bad part is: Would I ever send my parents to an Apple store to get a new computer? No, because when they buy a new computer they can only afford at most a $500 machine. Have they had to call me since we got them their windows vista machine? Nope (and I’ve yet a reason to install 7 on their machine even though I like it more). And should they run into problems I have TeamViewer where I can pop onto their machine and check it out for them, and walk them through steps so they don’t have to call me again for those things (which is the norm, teach them once and they learn, they are in their 60s and not tech savvy at all, but getting there).

      I don’t want to sound rude, but perhaps all those times in which you or their son explained computers to them, you didn’t actually teach them just got frustrated/annoyed and otherwise were not the best teachers available for them and the sales person at the Apple store, this one individual, just happened to be better at it. It isn’t the Apple store, but the person. I’ve been in Best Buys where there are remarkable sales people, but only a few, and you are lucky to be helped by them. I’d wager the same is true in an Apple store, there is only a chance to get a good sales person, instead of it being the norm. My only experience inside of an Apple store was pretty ridiculously different compared to your father-in-laws. And to say I’d rather have my parents spend more for less of a product (hardware wise, far less) is silly to me. To say the service, in this specific case (new users of modern technology) is a case that Apple is better, is to be pretty limited in scope. Right now it does make them successful, they have a niche, and that’s great (people with too much money). But all too soon that niche will go away as the tech savvy people replace the non-tech savvy people. I don’t think we can assert that a product is better simply because an older, out of touch, generation of folks can get service that helps them know it, even if that were the norm Apple stores provided.

      I do this same sort of thing in my business all the time. And the response that I get from customers is very complimentary. I know my stuff, I help them learn their stuff, and they usually don’t have to call me ever again for the same problem. Consistently, and I live in SF and work in SF, I hear of people who have trouble getting into the Apple stores here (that they are always too busy, or unwilling to help), or that the Apple Rep told them something that was completely incorrect, etc. Again, you will note that Apple is not perfect, in fact it isn’t even close. Is it better than HP? As a service company? Sure. I’ll admit to that, but only for the consistently depleting section of the populace who have little to zero knowledge of how computers and similar devices work.

      If you are talking about Service for a business, setup and such, they fail just as much as anybody else as you can’t do that sort of thing inside of a store. You need lots of extra support, that’s in-business support. Only really small businesses that focus on setting up other small businesses and training them on how to use their new setup (or being the full time technicians) can actually accomplish that very well. That’s a growing market, not a depleting one, as new cloud services start to become more popular, and as more and more people are using some very complicated setups for their own business and want growth built into these setups.

      Keep in mind your experience, the one experience of your father-in-law does not make for a common situation to be true. You, in this article, basically praised a single Apple employee and discredited yourself as a teacher, that one employee could do what you could not. I get that, I understand not wanting to spend the time. But, then to take the leap from there and claim that Apple as an entity, is better than the rest of the businesses who strive to do this same thing because of this sort of service happening ALL the time? That to me, as a reader, seems ridiculous.

      • Pyrotechnomimus

        09/07/2010 at 6:07 pm

        As a note, my above comment is in comment to the author, not this specific user.

      • Xavier Lanier

        09/07/2010 at 11:28 pm

        Thanks for your lengthy comment. No, I don’t think Apple’s service is perfect, but in my experience it’s a heck of a lot better than dealing with its competition. The above editorial is not at all based on a single Apple retail service experience. The SF Apple stores, especially the downtown one, can get crowded and it’s a smart move to book a service appointment if you want to stay on schedule. That store can get behind schedule and the Genius Bar can be a mad house. That’s why I generally go to the Stonestown store or one of the Palo Alto locations. There are 3 Apple stores within four miles of my home, making it pretty easy to get an appointment when needed. I’ve waltzed into stores without an appointment and received good customer service on occasion as well ( ).

        Here’s another example-

        It sounds like you offer your parents better support than my brother-in-law and I are able to. For that I applaud you, but trust me there are a lot of folks out there that don’t have a personal support rep such as yourself and need some in-person hand holding. A lot of people are willing to pay for the hand holding and/or support.

        • Pyrotechnomimus

          09/08/2010 at 3:07 am

          Every time I’ve had to call Lenovo for my computer from them (now aging in at the 2 year mark, a tablet as a note) I have had amazing customer support. Oh, but wait, I’ve only had to call them once to get the 64-bit version of the OS recovery disks (my computer came with 2 GB of RAM and 32 bit Vista), which they charged me $0 for because I had to be on hold for a little extra time (it was only about 10-15 minutes, but they thought it long). It is normally a $40 charge.

          My friend, however, hasn’t been as lucky. Though he bought, just like I bought, the extra onsite protection. He gets better hardware support than you, since he gets a technician who comes to his home, and for most things can fix the computer right then and there. In one case the tech was able to replace the entire casing right at my friend’s house! This onsite extra costs a few hundred dollars (in most cases 200-300) and you pay less still with this warranty than any comparable Apple computer. Since we both own Tablets, there isn’t even comparable Apple computers.

          In addition, I am no member of the press, Tech or otherwise, I don’t have to ever believe that the customer support I receive has anything to do with how recognizable I am. In addition, out of the 7 computers I’ve owned I’ve yet to have to call tech support except on my custom built desktop (after four years my motherboard went out, and EVGA is replacing it for free.. why? Cause it’s a lifetime guarantee). Did they spend an unusual amount of time trying to diagnose the problem? Nope, they took my word as a tech person, I told them what I had done already, and within 2-3 minutes I was approved to getting my new motherboard.

          On top of that, I’ve recently purchased a computer from and quite frankly, the service so far (just in purchasing) has been amazing. Got a desktop that has more than any Apple computer is really able to provide except the ludicrously expensive Mac Pros (and even then the cost comparison is pretty giant). And what do I get? Real technicians, USA based, Local even (Fremont) and I was given a 4 year warranty… with the cost of my computer (as a note Lenovo has USA based support too, and are often regarded as more reliable than Apple computers).

          Now that hardware support is out of the way… the fact of the matter is that it took me an unusual amount of time to change the desktop background on an Apple computer. I’m actually embarrassed a bit to say this, I spent 5-10 minutes meandering around the operating system (OSX – Snow Leopard) trying to find a quick and easy way to do it from a picture I was on with a webpage and I gave up, so I asked someone else. I could have googled it too, I suppose, but I was around people who had used Macs before. They aren’t easy to use.

          Every other consumer electronic I come into has a way about it that seems to work pretty well, and I’m able to pick up on it within minutes (whether Linux or Android). But, if I got a Mac I’d likely have to pay for some support just to get to know it and learn it. Someday if they come down from their ludicrously expensive high horse, and join the club of other manufacturers, maybe I will. In the meantime, in 75 days netbooks outsell the amount of Macs in use today. In that same time period they equal out the amount of iPhone users, and with the overwhelming majority of these things being Windows, I can’t see Windows being hard to use or Macs taking over the world because of having a ‘better product’ due to service.

          With millions of people accessing the internet and skype, and many other things like picture editing and movie editing, every single day on the millions more of non-netbooks sold every day not running MacOSX, I’d wager that Apple isn’t appealing to the masses with their service because it is mostly too costly for what you get.

          Your belief that the better product is one with better customer support should also be looked at through a lens of how often that support became necessary out of the overall amount of people using the product and compare it then in some per dollar of cost for level of support analysis and you might come up with a more meaningful way to rate the betterness of a product. I have no clue what that would result in, or who would come out on top, but Apple would have to be at least twice as good as it’s competitors with dramatically less need for support to actually equal a better product due to its overall cost.

          I’m not saying that people with the money ought not be able to spend whatever they like to get whatever level of support is meaningful to them. I’m saying that when making open statements about the betterness of a product you need to include some price comparisons too. I remember a very telling consumer reports that a customer brought to me once, it was a $100 Brother Printer versus a $450 HP Officejet. The Brother actually did a few things better than the HP, in this comparison, but for 80% of the things tested the HP won (not usually by very much). Isn’t that supposed to be that way though? A $450 printer should win against a $100 printer, and that’s the typical sort of thing Apple reviewers forget to mention. The cost that comes with the believed level of service.

          Not everyone lives within 4 miles of 3 Apple Stores. I live in SF, I take public transportation everywhere, I have a hard time getting to the one Apple store in the city, let alone elsewhere. Sure, I can’t get to a Lenovo store either (because they don’t exist), but if I need them… I don’t have to, they’ll come to me. And that, makes all the difference.

          • Xavier Lanier

            09/08/2010 at 7:51 am

            I agree, premium/in-home support from Lenovo and other PC manufacturers can be very valuable. Unfortunately it comes at a premium on most PCs- try getting that kind of support on a consumer PC bought at Best Buy, Wal Mart, etc.
            I didn’t intend to get into a Mac vs. PC debate, as I use and see value in both platforms. The bottom line is that a lot of consumers like interacting with humans that know a thing or two about the expensive shiny gadgets they’re buying. They also like being able to touch, feel and try out gadgets before they purchase them.

            Unfortunately, it’s all but impossible to try out the best PCs before buying them. For example, I highly recommend Lenovo products to my friends who are shopping for business notebooks. However there isn’t a single store in San Francisco that has a ThinkPad X200, X200T or X300 series on display. The same goes for high-end consumer notebooks. Sony is the exception and does have examples of all of its notebooks on display at its retail stores, though they’ve shut down several locations.

            My father-in-law’s experience might not be what every senior citizen experiences when they walk into an Apple store, but it’s the only chain of stores where I knew there’d be a good chance of him getting the level of service he did. That’s why I didn’t tell him to go to the nearest AT&T store or Best Buy to get the same device.

            By the way…if you live in San Francisco you live within 6 miles of three Apple stores

  8. Pyrotechnomimus

    09/08/2010 at 12:26 pm

    Thanks for pointing that out. I hadn’t even realized there were two within city limits. I had only ever heard of people going to the downtown one.

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