Free software users are often given second class service by big retailers, but the Apple retail store is the only place I've ever been dressed down by a clerk. This happened because of an obnoxious company policy that prevents clerks from sharing what they know. They are not allowed to deviate from their scripts and GNU/Linux is not part of it. They would teach me to dual boot Windows but GNU/Linux was treated like a social dissease. Read on for the full story.
The free software ban might be local problem but I doubt it. I only talked to three people at the newly opened store in Baton Rouge. It's possible that other stores and even other people at this store are better trained and more confident. The higher up the food chain I got, the more nervous and emphatic the employees were so it's probably a corporate issue. Either way, my experience was dissappointing and better training is required.
I visited the store to see how well free software runs on new Macs. Because Apple is a great user of free software and their store is designed to encourage experimentation, I expected knowlegable and friendly help. Everyone knows about GNU/Linux these days, even the rawest recruit at a big box store, and they are happy to talk, learn and play with it. The Geniuses at the Apple store should be able to match that and probably could if it were not for store policy.
Things started out as it would anywhere else but rolled downhill quickly. The first person I talked to was friendly. We had a nice conversation where I told him that while I admired OSX, I wanted to dual boot GNU/Linux for freedom and familiarity. He told me a little about boot camp. I would not be allowed to try this myself but that I could see it done with Windows. I asked him why the store would demonstrate Windows, which requires permission to use, but not free software which does not. He did not know. When I asked if there was anyone in the store who used free software, he took me to the Genius bar where some kind of alarm was raised.
I was soon greeted by a supervisor. The resident geniuses were obliging but too busy solving problems to talk much. The supervisor told me that the store's purpose was to sell Apples and that no one there could share their opinions about non supported third party software even if that was the only way to sell a Mac. It seemed to have something to do with proper training and there being too much free software to chose from. This is much the same as what the geniuses had told me.
Apple's training left real holes in the supervisor's knowledge that I was happy to fill. She had no concept of software freedom and thought free software was simply something that could be downloaded without cost. She had never heard of the Free Software Foundation or GNU. We had a nice conversation about these things and good software like Darwin and Safari. I asked her why Apple had not chosen a GNU/Linux distribution in the same way they had chosen KHTML and other free software. She did not know. The things she did not know and could not talk about started to upset her, so I tried to back away easily and thanked her for her time.
Then things got ugly. I was checking out a Mac Mini with a friend when a runner informed me that I was "needed" back at the genius bar. After a few minutes of waiting for the genius to finish up with another customer, I was treated to a dress down. Instead of telling me something new and interesting, the genius lambasted me for "acting like a software genius" and "demeaning" his boss. Stunned, I appologized and tried to assure him of my honest purposes but it was no use. He angrily rehashed Apple's store policy with what must have been a pile of personal opinions. "There's nothing we know that you can't find on Apple's web site," he mistakenly told me before dismissing me with, "I don't want you to walk out of here with misleading information." Oh no, there was no mistaking this service. It could not end this way, could it? Before I could get my jaw off the counter, the genius let me know the conversation was really over with a firm, "You are good to go." So I was. I was not happy with what I had found at the Apple store before and now I wanted out.
My disappointing Apple free software experience can be summed up as:
- You can't try before you buy. This leaves you with 14 days to get 90% of your money back if it does not work and you can make the computer look unopened in it's box. Do your research and pray nothing has changed.
- The staff is either clueless or forbidden to tell you what they know.
- If you ask too much about free software, you are going to be run off.
That's too bad. Apple can and should be a better tech citizen than that and it must be hard on the employees. Competitive environments are always difficult and Apple's 95% rejection rate of applicants is exceptional. Retail is also a hard place to be, but tight controls on knowledge are even worse. It is terrible to live by script and be forced to conceal knowledge that might be helpful, but that's what non free software is all about and I should have expected as much.