Post Apple Rant, What Have We Learned? A Visit With A “Genius” Ain’t Enough

I think I’ve said it before, if you want to attract attention, write about Apple. A rant which had been boiling inside me for some months finally erupted into words last Thursday, and since that post, more than 60,000 people have come to this site, leaving more that 300 comments and sharing the story’s link nearly 3000 times across four or so social networks.

That may be normal for a site like the Huffington Post, but I think it’s a record for Searchblog. Methinks I touched a nerve.

What I found most interesting was the tone of the response – I had anticipated the standard Apple defenders to come out with blades sharpened, calling me a dumb old skool punter or worse. There was some of that, but the vast majority of folks who commented, either on Twitter, Facebook or here on the site, were instead supportive of my point of view, adding their own frustrating stories, as well as helpful suggestions.

Chief among them was pointing out the iOS feature that brings you back to the top of any list by touching the clock (who knew? Not me). That solved one of the larger irritations I have with the iPhone, but not the largest – which is this yellow “other” goo that has taken over my phone’s storage. For that, I had to head to my nearby Apple store – I made the appointment online.

Saturday I drove over to the store, which was, as always, buzzing with a kind of high-household-income testosterone (regardless of gender). I met my “Apple Genius” and explained my problems. I showed him my post, and explained that while I had many issues with Apple, all I wanted was the yellow goo to go away.

My Genius was a very nice fellow, clearly aware of the storage issue. This was not the first, or even the 100th, time he’d dealt with it. He explained that it was probably corrupted software in the phone’s OS, and that a clean restore would most likely fix the problem. I told him I’d tried that already, twice, but admitted that perhaps I had done something wrong.

Funny aside: As I was showing him my post, I explained that many commentators had scolded me for not knowing about how “touching the clock” took you back to the top of contacts and initiated a search. He was dumbstruck – he had the same problem as me, and didn’t know about the feature either. So at least I don’t feel as stupid as before.

Anyway, the Genius (I’m protecting his name and location) did an initial software scan and told me that yes, my phone had a software problem. What kind of problem, I asked? He said the scan didn’t say, just that he needed to “update the firmware.” That meant, essentially, wiping my phone back to factory settings, then restoring it from a backup. Fortunately I had brought my computer as well, so he did a backup, then proceeded to install the new firmware.

While we were waiting, I asked Mr. Genius if the “problem” was corruption in the software, or if it was a known bug that Apple had fixed in more recent firmware updates. I suspected it was a known bug, given how prevalent my yellow goo problem was (it’s all over the Apple boards). He said he wasn’t sure, but admitted it was likely a firmware bug that had been fixed later. It often had something to do with the upgrade to iOS 5 and forcing people to use the cloud, he admitted.

The phone was now ready for its backup, but when he attached it to my computer, the restore process was going to take well over an hour (I had a lot of photos, and he said that takes a lot of time to transfer.) I couldn’t sit at the store for an hour, so I told him I’d do it at home, if that was OK. He said of course, and I was on my way. At this point, the phone was clean as a whistle, but it also wasn’t “my” phone – it was back to its “pristine” state.

You can probably guess where this is going, or I’d not be wasting your time. I got home, chose the backup the Genius had made to my phone, and let it run while I did some chores around the house. When I got back I checked the iTunes storage to see if the goo was gone. Indeed it was, but so were my photos. And my apps. For whatever reason, my music was there. Nothing else.

That was odd. I called the Apple store and asked to speak to my Genius, but they aren’t really set up for that kind of follow up. After sitting on hold for ten minutes, another person came on, admitted my Genius had left for the day, apologized for my predicament, but had no solution for me other than to suggest I use an earlier version of the phone’s backup. Turns out there was one, from about a week ago. So I decided to backup from that version.

I’m about three hours of time into this by now, for those keeping count at home.

So, to review where I was: I had a iPhone with totally new, up to date firmware but without most of my original data, because the backup made at the Apple store was somehow incomplete. And I was now going to replace that backup with one made a week earlier.

Which I did. And this time the backup took a lot longer, which to me was a good sign: My photos must be transfering this time!

After about 45 minutes, the process was complete, and it was time to check the Goo-O-Meter.

Uh oh:

I had a tiny bit less goo, and I had my photos, but not my apps. I realized I could get those later by sync’ing apps in iTunes, so I punted on figuring that out (and there wasn’t room on the phone anyway). Regardless, I was on hour four, and this was NOT progress.

PhoneDisk To The Rescue

It was about this point that I decided that if I was going to solve this problem, I was going to have to do it myself. Earlier in the year I had purchased a utility called PhoneDisk, now known as iExplorer. It’s  a great piece of software that lets you mount your iPhone as if it were just another hard drive. It “roots” your phone – showing all the files that are in there, even if the opaque Apple iOS doesn’t (or won’t).

I figured it couldn’t hurt to use PhoneDisk to see if there were folders and files that looked….off.

And yep, I sure found something. Turns out I had more than 17 gigabytes of “recordings” – memos from Apple’s Voice Memo application that comes standard with every phone. Now, I’ve used that app about 30 times, and my phone showed about half that many recordings when I looked using the app itself (I’d deleted the others). But using PhoneDisk, I found more than 1200 recordings! And guess what – more than 1000 of them were duplicates, many duplicates of memos I’d deleted over the years!

I decide to delete all the duplicates using PhoneDisk. First I backed up the entire 17 gigs on a 4-terabyte drive I happen to have (handy, I’ll admit). Then I sync’d music with “Include Voice Memos” unchecked (it had been checked). I was hoping that might get rid of the dupes. No luck.

My next step was to delete some test files from the iPhone using PhoneDisk, just to see if it reduced my yellow goo factor. I identified one 42.6-megabyte file that was duplicated 97 times – I trashed 96 of them.

By the way, I’m into hour five of working on this problem, thanks Apple! But I’m sure this is what the company means when it markets itself as revolutionary and elegant and all that.

After the 96 files were moved to the trash and the trash emptied, the yellow goo did not immediately disperse, but I know enough about the Mac to know you need to restart everything to see if anything “took.” I disconnected the iPhone and reconnected it. Of course, it starts to sync (as it always does), and that sync was taking a Very Long Time.

It seemed to be hung on the “backing up” part of the sync. So I tried to kill the sync. I was too eager to see if I had cleared some of the goo. Well, when I hit the little “x” that allows you to stop a sync, I got the infamous Apple Spinning Ball of Death.

Time for my favorite app: Force quit.

I fired up iTunes again….and stopped it from synching the phone immediately.

And yes! Minor success – 5 gigabytes of yellow goo – the amount I deleted using PhoneDisk, is now gone!!! But I am not triumphant – because I sense that as soon as I sync and back up – a process which cannot be avoided, those duplicate files may return. I must be cautious. I have many miles to tread.

The next hour or so is spent deleting files from the iPhone and insuring commensurate reduction in my phone’s goo. Finally, I restart everything, connect the phone, let it sync (that took half and hour) and….SUCCESS!

Yes, six hours later, my phone is (mostly) yellow goo free, and I’ve identified the culprit, some kind of duplications bug in the Voice Memo app.

Will it come back? Who knows. Is my experience typical? I bet not. But let’s just be clear about one thing: This. Ain’t. Easy. 

And Apple’s Geniuses? Not so much.   

43 thoughts on “Post Apple Rant, What Have We Learned? A Visit With A “Genius” Ain’t Enough”

  1. I don’t have an iPhone but I imagine this post would be extremely useful for those experiencing the same problem. BTW – I enjoyed reading the story and I think like most readers – I have gone through similar process in the past for other technology related issues 🙂

      1. You are not an outlier, Apple is increasingly more irritating. I too am 45, and have been a Mac fan since I first used an Apple Macintosh in 1990. I own a 24-inch late 2006 iMac running Mac OS X Lion, and an iPhone 4S. I am disappointed with the lack of options in iCal, Mail, iPhoto — it’s clear that Apple is not interested in listening to feedback from users. It upsets me that we feel the need to rely on third party apps or consider third party software. If Apple is only interested in squeezing more money out of us, then by all means — offer improvements and I will consider ‘paying for the privilege’ of having a premium version of these services — but don’t keep pushing out new stuff that doesn’t address our needs. I’d like to point out that as a Canadian, I pay an exorbitant amount each month for wireless and internet (not to mention old fashioned cable and landline phone for my mother). I would switch carriers and change my mobile phone and computer, but much like an election — there does not seem to be a clear winner whom to back — every choice has compromises and one ends up choosing the lesser of all evils. My husband is a software engineer/developer (veritable smarty pants), and even he has to spend hours on Apple Forums, figuring things out from various threads. The apple is not quite as shiny as it once was in my humble opinion. Thanks for putting this out there. Many of us have had similarly frustrating experiences, but have little energy left afterwards to rant about it!

    1. Everyone? I mean is it normal for consumers to have to understand how to do a complete backup and restore on the magical iPhone?

  2. Why haven’t you already written a book about this? I was following your post and it was like watching a mystery unfold, quite entertaining (sadly at your expense).

    Thanks for sharing your findings here, I just look the other way when I see the “goo” but I’ve seen the “goo” on all OS’es not just iOS to be fair. This should hopefully help others resolve the problems and maybe get Apple’s attention to make it good for everyone!

  3. Re: contacts search, there’s an even easier and more intuitive way to initiate a search. Put your thumb anywhere on the strip of letters on the right and slide your thumb up to the top. You’re meant to slide your thumb on the letters/magnifying glass, not tap them.

  4. i think i love you. i was the only person i knew in 2000 who was using an apple laptop and told everyone to switch over. then over time, the products became less stellar and the response from the “geniuses” was always invest in the upgrade or buy a new ____. why should i spend more money to have something i already bought work correctly? thieves. i’ve since switched to an Android phone and guess what, it sucks too! my expectations as a consumer must be too high, maybe as a result of apple’s beautiful marketing. it’s about time someone called apple out so big thanks. i wish you could get those 6 hours back.

  5. An interesting point – you never mentioned giving up your iPhone even after experiencing so much pain. It’s not perfect, it’s not always simple but all in all, it’s still one amazing phone device.

    1. It’s a terrible phone. It’s a pretty good utility device, yes. I plan to move to Android however. I’m not buying anther iPhone

      1. I guess we have different experiences but I understand that level of disappointment. Value is in the eye of the beholder, I’m waiting on my iPhone 5 and its utility. 🙂

      2. I switched from iPhone to the cheapest Android phone I could find about a year ago. These LG phones that come with Virgin Mobile accounts, at $109 (last year’s model; equivalents this year are similarly priced but newer and better) are practically “burners”. I get the same utility out of mine as I did from my iPhone. If I drop mine in a toilet or something, I’ll drop another Benjamin Franklin for another one.

        The only things I am missing out on are Siri, the Genius Bar, and iCloud. Somehow I am managing to cope though.

  6. Hi John,

    I was a PC girl my whole life until we recently got a Mac. I am constantly screaming at it in agony because I have NO IDEA how to use it. It is beyond difficult to figure out the simplest things, and I’m not even talking about the level of technical problems you were having. I have been to the genius bar for help with figuring out the usage issues but my favorite was when I went in to do an upgrade to Lion and they found corruption on my hard disk in the process of doing the upgrade and I lost all kinds of data, including my address book and all of my old email. My fault for not having the patience to do the backup before they did this. I guess I just have to let it go. I do not have an iPhone because I am a true nerd, but from what I have seen of them, they are good digital devices, but lousy phones. They are not designed to do actual talking. . . . long story short – the proprietary nature of apple devices, coupled with their lack of ease of use is a drag.

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  8. I had the same experience a few weeks back. The “genius” solution was to wipe my phone. And the iTunes backup I did before heading to the Apple store failed AND I had no iCloud setup. So I was sca-rewed. Shockingly disorienting. All is well now, but, boy, this widespread discontent is big news for Apple. Because when you’re a passionate (some might say rabid) fan of something, disappointment is all the more bitter.

  9. My iPad and iPhone photos all occur in duplicate, triplicate & worse. So does all my music. Every song is repeated at least twice, so this voice memo problem is an iOS overall problem. I’ve tried deleting repeats but the copies keep coming back. I think the problem is iTunes

  10. John I have also been a Apple Mac user before Apple became anything more then a alternative PC for the few. I too miss things like dot Mac, low impact OS like Tiger or Snow Leopard. Yes even Apple’s apps are cluttered with useless changes for the sake of change. Maybe that is the problem with Apple. It has people doing stuff for the sake of reinvention so that Apple can market it and sell it. I can never get used to using a version of OSX because within a year Apple will change it and almost force you to accept it or face entering that no support zone. You will eventually become that forgotten Mac user that has older hardware and running a older OS which Apple deems outdated. The real problem with this is I also use PC’s and for 8 years I used Windows XP and was able to do anything that a Windows 7 user could do. I finally upgraded to Windows 7 but only for better security. Not for compatibility issues. My other issue with Apple is its disturbing trend towards making its products non up gradable. Soldered RAM, glued in batteries, loss of OS upgrade support. When I pay over a $1000 for a Mac. Do I want Apple to stop supporting it after 3 1/2 years? Is this right? A lot of people who love Apple can afford to buy frequently and ditch their one or two year old Apple product for the next great thing.
    My question is should we have too. Yes, I think Apple is different now,then it was then.

    1. As a very long term Mac user I agree 100%.
      That’s why I switched to PC a few years back and the Mac Pro I have will almost certainly be my last.
      There used to be a time when a Mac was the obvious choice for certain industry jobs and we would all mock Windows users for their flaky OS and inferior hardware.
      It took me a while to jump ship, but a high end and well configured PC (like a Mac is) is just as, if not more stable and capable than a Mac.
      Thanks for the memories Apple – some bad but mostly good – I will now leave you to your gadgets.

  11. First and only reason to visit this site. And the last.

    What an ignoranus.

    I gave my wife an iPhone for our anniversary, yesterday. When the flowers I sent her at work arrived – she decided she would try to snap a photo of them – email it to me back at my home office. First try at something like that.

    Golly gee – it took her all of 14 seconds from start to finish.

    Something that I guess would have taken Battelle 14 minutes.

      1. It’s not. Most newbies miss the point.

        Apple products are amazing the first time you use them. They fail after you start using them regularly.

  12. I agree about the software aspect of Apple, they seriously need to spend some of their pile of money on some decent programmers.

    I am a little confused as to why you didn’t just go straight for the PhoneDisk app in the first place. I get that you shouldn’t have to, but if you are looking for mystery “other” goo, a file browser seems the right solution for the job. Why drive yourself batty when you already have an app that is designed to help you fix an issue like this. It seems you would think, hmmm, mystery goo = mystery files > possible solution > PhoneDisk. That would have taken less time, maybe, although it wouldn’t make for a very interesting post : /

    1. pixelsky, blaming programmers is just scape-goating. Do you think programmers make the real decisions that affect software quality? Do they decide the time and money spent on R&D, architecture, internal code reviews, testing and ultimately, when a product is deemed ready to ship? Get a clue! That is 100% determined by management.

      Granted, exceptional programmers are hard to come by. But that’s because software development is exceptionally difficult, and the demand for software is exceptionally high. However, Apple has a large number of exceptionally talented programmers and spends a lot of money on finding and hiring new ones. But the talent pool is finite, and lots of other companies are also trying to hire those programmers. And some programmers don’t want to work for any company. I’m a good programmer, and I prefer to work for myself. Because as high as the ceiling goes for programmer salaries, it’s a joke compared to management.

      In the view of corporations, talent exists to be exploited, just like customers.

  13. John, I feel for you, and agree with much of what you say—half-heartedly. Unfortunately, the problem is not just Apple. It is not just software companies. It is not just computer companies. It is not even just corporations. It is “reality”, that is, the social and cultural reality of our invention, which incorporates both your point of view and that of Apple and its leadership, and almost everyone else.

    Consumer culture is about consumption. It is not about accomplishing things. It is not about ease of use. It is not about innovation. It is about consumption. Apple makes products to consume, and consumers buy them. What those consumers do with them is only significant insofar as it encourages them to consume more. Faster consumption leads to more economic “growth” leads to more profits leads to more concentrated wealth leads to better political contributions leads to laws which better promote more consumption, in a perpetual cycle.

    So, your expectation of Apple and its products is, while probably not naive, is very blinkered, if not disingenuous. You alluded to your awareness that Apple’s purpose is to get you to invest yourself (your self-image as a Mac user, your data into their proprietary systems, even into their own actual hardware in the cloud) in order to keep you in their thrall. Every corporation wants this, but computer platform manufacturers have had the most success, because of the data they control which you so closely associate with your sense of self.

    Beyond that, let’s consider the ease-of-use argument more on its face. Yes, it could be better. There are thousands of ways that computers could be more transparent, more useful, more simplified (without be dumbed down as they are), with an actual learning curve instead of a pleasant valley of ease-of-use surrounded by mountains of impenetrable techno-complexity. But regardless of the shape of the technology landscape, there is no getting away from the heights of those mountains. But to take the side of the technologists, they know that the vast majority of people have no interest in scaling those mountains even on the most benign of slopes. Any slope at all will elicit anger and vitriol from the majority of people. Because people have no interest in understanding how it works, there is no motivation for technology companies to invest any time into creating a reasonable learning curve.

    I am a technologist. I’ve been a Mac user since the early 1990’s, and a Mac programmer and systems specialist since late 1990’s. I have known Apple operating systems and application software (not to mention servers, networking equipment and peripherals) from the inside out. I have learned some outrageous stuff, written some very complex software, and tried to help other people understand and use software and hardware of all kinds. You can’t use it properly unless you understand it. And to understand it, you must learn it.

    The only alternative to understanding computer technology is to have an assistant who understands it on your behalf. Until we have artificial software assistants which speak English and incorporate self-diagnostics on the level of the best expert systems (which won’t be cheap), that’s the lay of the land.

    Fact is, however, even the work of becoming knowledgeable is severely undermined by that vicious consumption-driving circle I mentioned above. While Mac OS X from a few years ago was virtually perfect, and required only fine-tuning, such improvements would not provide Apple sufficient profit growth. It would not drive new hardware sales. So it was not a viable corporate strategy. Their hands are tied. The only course is to create more useless features to confabulate consumers and justify new cats in the OS line. They have to gut Final Cut Pro and alienate their user base with a radical new version. They have to serve their shareholders, no matter how much it requires them to ultimately hurt their customers to do it. And eventually it will backfire, and their shareholders will move on to the next thing, leaving Apple a smoking ruin.

    Maybe it’s time to see the forest and stop being so fixated on the trees.

    1. That has got to be one of the most concise, detailed and world-aware view I have read about any company. You basically translated what I thought into words in a helluva lot less words than I would have. Well done!

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