Did Apple intend to disable G3 Mac users' ability to upgrade?


For the kind of people who fork over top dollar for a top-of-the-line computer, expandability and the ability to upgrade the machine are articles of faith.

So when owners of Apple's blue-and-white, G3 Macs discovered that a program Apple posted online to fix a bug in their computers also blocked their machines from operating with a fast new G4 processor, many were outraged.

The blue-and-white G3s were Apple's high-end systems before the PowerMac G4s were introduced last month, and Mac message boards on the Internet erupted with shock and anger. Some accused Apple of intentionally crippling their machines to force them to buy a pricey new G4 PowerMac.

Apple was far from encouraging. In the Tech Exchange forums on Apple's Web site, the company posted the following message: "Apple has no plans to provide for processor exchanges or upgrades for PowerMac G4 or Power Macintosh G3 computers, and Apple does not support after-market processor exchanges or upgrades for these systems."

Then the company muzzled its critics, deleting many of the complaining messages with the explanation that the issue was "off-topic" and not appropriate for discussion in the forum. Apple's position hasn't budged since.

"We don't engineer them to be upgradeable," said Apple spokeswoman Nathalie Welch.

Nevertheless, before Apple posted a "firmware" update for G3s in the spring (a change in the computer's basic, internal programming), the older Macs could accept G4 upgrades. Unlike the compact, one-piece iMacs, Apple's tower-enclosed machines offer expandability -- one of the main reasons for the higher price tag.

Welch attributed some of the dissatisfaction to "buyer's remorse" from folks who bought the G3 at the end of its product cycle.

Apple's reason for releasing the firmware update, said Welch, was to fix "a lot of stability issues." (Apple documentation states that the update "improves PCI performance." No mention is made of the disabling side effect.) She said the "upgrade problem was not a consideration."

Did Apple sabotage its customers' machines on purpose?

Some G3 owners believed Apple booby-trapped the firmware update to prevent vendors of G4 upgrade cards from spoiling the introduction of the new PowerMac G4 with products that could make older computers as fast or faster.

Welch wouldn't say whether Apple knew its software would prevent customers from upgrading or whether the company did it intentionally, saying the company has a no-comment policy on the issue.

Some of the furor has dissipated in recent weeks because two upgrade card vendors, PowerLogix and Sonnet, have announced work-arounds. A third vendor, Newer Technology, is also expected to announce a fix.

"It's not that big a deal," said Newer Technology's spokesman, Eric Dahlinger, calling it an "easy fix."

Dahlinger said that if Apple had wanted to, it could have altered its hardware to prevent CPU upgrades permanently, but "it doesn't appear that was their intention."

Nor, he said, has Apple adopted a hostile policy toward upgrade vendors. Without Apple's cooperation, he said, third-party hardware makers would face a difficult, if not impossible challenge.

So what's going on here?

Perhaps the issue isn't as serious as it looks. Just because Apple doesn't officially support third-party CPU upgrades -- and in fact advises against them -- doesn't mean it wants to put an end to them.

"We're not trying to limit the third-parties," Welch said. "They're very important. Those guys keep our customers happy that do want to upgrade." She said Apple had no objections to the vendors' announced workarounds.

For now the problem has been resolved, but the reality is that Apple disabled its own hardware after it was in customers' hands. Then it not only refused to fix the problem, but denied it did anything wrong. That has left devoted Mac users feeling uneasy.

Think different, indeed.

Send e-mail to david.zeiler @baltsun.com.

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