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What my disabled iPod Touch says about the state of Apple's customer service

After my iPod Touch became locked until 2056, I sought help. But a trip to my local Apple store Genius Bar only led to more frustration.

The 40-year lock (click image to enlarge).
David Carnoy/CNET

First, a bit of history:

Back in August of last year, I wrote an article titled, "Why I regret buying an iMac." The hard drive in my $2,000 iMac had died after 22 months and when I went into an Apple store to see if Apple would help me out, particularly after the company had already recalled the drives in 2011 iMacs (I had a 2010 model), I was told by the geniuses in the Apple Store that since I hadn't bought Apple Care there was nothing they could do for me except replace the drive for $265.

Tens of thousands of people read the article and hundreds commented on it, some agreeing with my frustration, others calling me an idiot, which is par for the course whenever you write an article -- positive or negative -- about Apple.

Apple never contacted me after I wrote the piece, but a couple of months later, a reader tweeted me, saying that thanks to my article Apple had "caved" and extended the recall on iMac drives (they're made by Seagate) to include 2010 models and some 2009 models. I don't know how much my article really had to do with the recall, but if it did have an impact, that's great; I'm happy for the consumers who benefited.

Cut to last week. My 9-year-old daughter came to me asking me to buy her a new fifth-generation iPod Touch "because all the kids at school have them." I had one on loan from Apple for doing Lightning-based speaker dock reviews (I have an iPhone 4S, but not an iPhone 5, which has the new Lightning connector) and she liked it but knew I wouldn't -- or couldn't -- let her have it. I asked her what happened to the 32GB third-generation iPod Touch I'd given her. She said it was locked.

I found that strange. She knew the pass code. How could it be locked?

"No, I can't put the code in anymore," she said.

She went and got the iPod and showed it to me. I saw a message I'd never seen before: "iPod is disabled -- try again in 22,656,990 minutes."

Wow. By my calculations using the Calculator app on my enabled iPhone, I was looking at 43.1 years.

How had this happened?

"I don't know," my daughter said. "One of the twins probably put the wrong code in too many times."

That made sense -- the iPod had slipped into the wrong hands. Little ones.

I have 4-year-old twins and apparently one or both them had gone to town on the lock on the iPod. I knew you could get locked out for a little while, maybe a week or two at the most, but I never knew you could get locked out for 43 years.

I wasn't that concerned. There was nothing on the iPod that couldn't be recovered (apps), and I figured I'd just "restore" the thing on my computer. To appease my daughter's want for an iPod Touch fifth-generation, I traded her my fourth-gen Touch for her disabled third-gen one.

She wasn't happy, but she took it.

"It's got a camera and they still sell it in the store for $200," I said, selling it. "You'll be fine. The one you want anyway is the iPad Mini Retina or the iPod Touch 6. You're too late in the Apple product cycle to being buying a 5."

"Too late in the what?"

"Just be patient," I said. "Trust me. I do this for a living."

"Are you going to fix that?" she asked, pointing to her old iPod.

"I'm going to try."

Well, that proved more difficult than I thought. I knew it was a long shot but I hoped I could connect the device to my computer and simply restore it, but sure enough, iTunes said the device was disabled and I needed to input its security code before it could sync it.

I turned to Google, keying in terms like "iPod disabled for 40 years" and found plenty of other folks who'd encountered the same problem. I confirmed that you couldn't just attach the iPod to your computer and have it get recognized (at least not with a third-gen iPod Touch) as a device that had previously synced with that computer. No, you had to put your iPod Touch in DFU mode, which allegedly allowed "all iOS devices to be restored from any state."

I'd done a DFU reset with an iPhone 3GS a few years back, so I had some experience with it. It requires some finesse -- you turn off the device completely, then hold the power button for 3 seconds, then hold down the home button for 10 seconds, then let go of the power button while continuing to hold the home button.

With my 3GS I pulled the maneuver off successfully after two tries. But no such luck with the disabled iPod Touch. I tried probably 25 times and got nowhere. After taking a deep breath and admitting defeat, I figured it was time to go have a chat with the experts. So I went online and made an appointment at the Upper West Side Apple store. I was pretty sure they could fix it. They had to have encountered this issue many times and must have had some sort of secret, backdoor way to restore the iPod Touch.

The Upper West Side Apple store in Manhattan (click image to enlarge). David Carnoy/CNET

A visit to the Genius Bar Two days later I walked in to the Apple store and made my way down to the basement where the Genius Bar is located and where all the accessories are sold. I came in with a positive attitude. Despite my experience last year with the iMac, I was fairly optimistic that I would end up with a good outcome. I felt I was on firmer ground because I was dealing with a software problem, not a hardware issue.

I figured that since the device was still clearly working -- I hadn't dropped it and had, in fact, kept it in a case the whole time, so it looked pretty pristine -- it was a software bug that Apple, not I, was responsible for. Yeah, the device was way out of warranty, but since this was a software issue, Apple would cut me some slack, particularly because I owned an iPhone, three iPod Touches, three iPads, three Apple laptops, an iMac, an Apple TV, and a bunch of iPods, including the very first one that still worked. If the geniuses couldn't fix the problem by restoring the device, they'd replace it or offer me an enticing deal on a newer model. (I didn't think repairing the device free of charge would be an option since there wasn't anything to repair.)

Yes, I understood that the disabled message was designed to deter data theft (and perhaps theft of the device, though thieves could certainly watch the same YouTube tutorial videos on how restore your iOS device that I had). But I was never warned that putting a lock on my device could prevent me from ever using it again.

The last time I'd made an appointment (for the iMac issue) I had to wait almost half an hour to see someone. But that morning the store wasn't crowded and I saddled right up to the bar and presented my problem. I simply turned the device on and handed it to the genius I'd checked in with. The same disabled message appeared over my daughter's pink-and-purple camouflage background.

"Have you seen that before?" I asked.

"Oh, yeah," he said.

He seemed fairly unperturbed, which gave me hope. He said he just had to hook it up to a computer and put it into restore mode. I told him I tried that.

"Sometimes the buttons aren't working quite properly," he said. "You have to hold them down in just the right spot. It can be a little tricky."

He mentioned that with the newer iPod Touches and iOS 6 (you can't put iOS 6 on a third-gen iPod Touch), it was easier to unlock a disabled iPod Touch. It didn't lock you out for 22,656,990 minutes, which was a random huge number the iPod had generated. That explained why I'd seen other iPod Touches online with the same problem that had numbers hovering around the 40-year mark but they were marginally different.

He was nice guy. And so, too, was the next guy I got passed onto after the first guy couldn't get the iPod into DFU mode. The first guy tried maybe 10 times while the second guy tried close to 20. Around the 10th try, he also made a comment about button issues and remarked that since it was a second-gen Touch it had been around for a while.

"It's not a second-gen," I said. "It's third-gen."

I told him I probably wouldn't have bothered bringing it in if it was second-gen. But the third-gen still ran a lot of games fine and it made for a good Spotify or Sonos remote. I hadn't used it that much and the battery still held a charge, so it seemed worth saving.

"The third-gen had a camera," he said.

"No, you guys started with the camera in the fourth-gen."

"No, I had a third-gen. I bought one."

I had urge to tell him, "Trust me, I do this for a living." But I thought that would be rude, so I told him to Google it. When his image search came up with a camera-less iPod Touch, he didn't believe it. He then took the serial number off the back of my device and keyed it into his system.

"You're right," he said. "It is a gen three."

A Google search revealed that the iPod Touch 3 didn't have a camera (click to enlarge). Screenshot by David Carnoy/CNET

He then went back to trying to get the device into DFU mode. In the midst of all this, there was a woman sitting next to me at the bar, having some problem with her e-mail account. She wasn't getting any e-mail on her iPhone 5. She had a Time Warner Road Runner account. Apple told her it was a Time Warner issue, so they had her call Time Warner on a second, store-owned iPhone 5. After she spoke with Time Warner, she told the genius who'd been assigned to her (my first genius) that Time Warner said it was an Apple issue.

The genius disagreed, but took another look at her phone. At that point she muttered something to me about "how this never happened with my old Samsung phone," which prompted me to pull out the Galaxy S4 review sample I had in my bag. I stuck it on the bar between us. "You want to play around with this while you're waiting," I said, entering into a real-life parody of a Samsung commercial.

"Do you think it's better?" she said without taking the phone.

I looked up at my genius, who, to his credit, was ignoring us and working diligently to get my iPod in DFU mode.

"They all have their deficiencies," I replied diplomatically.

More time passed. Finally, my genius had had enough.

"I'm pretty sure it's your home button that's the problem," he said.

"But it seems to be working," I countered. "When you press it, the iPod wakes up. The device was working fine before it locked itself."

"The button works when clicking, but it's not sensing when it's being held down. The button needs to be held down to get into restore mode."

I got his point but wasn't willing to concede it. It didn't seem possible for the button to appear to work fine yet be broken.

"So what happens now?" I asked.

"Well, the device needs to be replaced," he explained. "We have replacement devices."

"You do?" I replied hopefully.

"We don't sell them," he said. "But we have them for people who need them replaced. But here's the bad part..."

I knew what he was going to say next, but it still hurt a little when he said it.

"Since you're out of warranty and don't have Apple Care on the product, you're going to have to pay $150 if you want to replace it."

He took a look at the sour expression on my face and added apologetically, "I know. I'm sorry. That's just the way it is."

"Do you know how many Apple devices I have?" I said. "Why don't you take a look at my account? You can't replace a lousy third-gen iPod Touch that was working fine until it disabled itself for 43 years?"

"I know, sir. But that's just the way it is."

For the moment, I remained calm. I asked to speak to a supervisor.

Apple geniuses said a glitch with the home button was preventing the device from entering recovery mode. David Carnoy/CNET

Siri, we have a problem
The reason I'd asked for a supervisor is that in the past I'd had some luck at Apple stores speaking to a supervisor after an initial floor person said I couldn't do something I wanted to do, like return an unopened $50 iTunes card that I'd received as a gift and put have that amount credited toward the purchase of a hardware product.

This time, however, the hammer came down hard. After being briefed by my genius, the supervisor came over and reiterated what my genius had told me, but he skipped the apologetic tone. He said the device had to be replaced.

"So because of a bug in your software my device is dead," I said. "Now you want me to pay $150 to replace it."

"It's not a bug in the software," he fired back. "It's a problem with your hardware. Your home button is broken. I can try to put it in restore mode, but it's not able to sense that I'm holding it down."

He then held the power button for a couple seconds, then pressed down on the home button and I watched as the device took a screenshot of the disabled message.

"See," he said. "See how it's taking a screenshot. I can't hold down the button. I can try if you want me to...I can try to put it in restore mode."

I let him give it a shot. When it didn't work after a few tries, I told him to stop. The others had tried at least 30 times. What was the point?

I resorted to profanity, even dropping the f-bomb. I was still having trouble coming to terms with a home button that worked but didn't work.

"Your home button is broken," he said again. "Your device needs to be replaced."

"You guys used to be about 'getting to yes,'" I volleyed back. "You used to be about having your customers walk away happy. Now you don't f---ing care."

"Hey, come on," he said, "let's keep this professional."

"Why?" I asked.

A different Apple
The reason I made the comment about "getting to yes" is that a reporter for another tech blog once told me that somewhere along the line Apple had changed its customer service philosophy (and policy). He said he used to work for Apple and that it used to be about "getting to yes" and having the customer walk away satisfied with the outcome. A few years ago, when I had my iPhone 3GS developed a battery problem, I went into the Apple Store a couple of times and they replaced my phone. The second time I went in I was actually two weeks over my warranty, but the genius I was dealing with said that since I had been in earlier for the same problem, they would replace the phone.

I appreciated that. And frankly, that kind of customer service was part of the reason I bought Apple products. I knew I could walk into an Apple store and get some help if something went wrong and that if I was a few weeks out of warranty, they'd cut me some slack. Or if my hard drive failed after less than two years, they'd replace it, particularly when they'd already done a recall on other, newer drives (alas, no, that didn't happen).

The same can be said for brands like Bose, which sells products at premium prices but is known for offering excellent customer service and replacing its expensive noise-canceling headphones if they break.

Of course, when your products become incredibly popular, it becomes a challenge to deal with the throngs of customers, many of them total tech novices, who come into your stores asking for help. I know it's a challenge, and I also know that some people may have had better customer service experiences than I've had the last few times I've gone to an Apple store with a problem (if you've had either good or bad experiences, feel free to describe them in the comments section).

Apple Insider recently reported that some big changes are coming this fall to the Apple Care and Apple Care+ programs. If the report is accurate, it appears that Apple will offer a subscription service for Apple Care that covers multiple devices, as well as more "in-house" repairs that cut down on the number of devices that have to be replaced. (In my case, repairing my device was not presented as an option.)

A source told Apple Insider that, "The way it is now, if almost anything is wrong with an iPhone, iPod, or iPad, the entire device is exchanged for a like-new re manufactured (sic) device, whether brought into an Apple store or sent in for mail-in repair. Now we are starting to actually repair the products and return the same device to the customer."

It's unclear if this will mark a change in Apple's overall customer service philosophy. You'd hope that the new programs will be designed to make Apple customers happier. However, the article mentions that the new in-house repair program is designed to save Apple money -- potentially up to a billion dollars a year after the new program is rolled out across the world -- which should make Apple's shareholders happy.

But I digress. Back to story. It's not quite over yet.

The recycle option After my heated exchange with the supervisor down at the Genius Bar, I went upstairs and spoke to a woman who was standing in the back of the store. Looking for a second opinion, I asked to speak to a manager.

She said she was a manager. In fact, she was the senior manager of the store.

I told her the situation and showed her the message on my disabled iPod and how the geniuses had tried to restore the device but had failed.

"They say my home button is broken, that it can't sense when it's being held down, but as you can see, when I press the home button, the device wakes up. This is something that could have been broken in the first year I had the device, but I wouldn't have been able to detect it."

She was friendly enough, but her attitude was that if the button was broken in any way, it was broken.

I then started cursing again, which turned some heads in the store. When you're in a fairly empty Apple Store that's one big room with glass and stone walls, your voice really carries. Suddenly, you feel like you're in a museum or in a house of worship on a very holy day.

The senior manager told me that she didn't appreciate my language or tone. Apparently, you're not allowed to swear in an Apple Store.

"Sir, if you'd calm down we could discuss some of your options."

She was well trained. Rule one when dealing with an disgruntled customer: appease him or her with the promise of a set of options. I calmed down.

"What are my options?" I asked, curious.

She said that if I chose to recycle my device, she could give me 10 percent off a new iPod Touch. I didn't need the Calculator app to know that amounted to $30 of the 32GB version, which would basically cancel out the sales tax, plus a few bucks.

"And I can do that at any time?" I asked.

I could, she said, though the discount program only applied to iPods.

"Well, I already have a new iPod Touch. I don't need another one right now. I just wanted to get this disabled one fixed."

After voicing my displeasure another couple times, I congratulated her on being a well-trained employee. Then I walked out of the store and went to work.

At home with the home button
Later that day when I got home, I pulled the iPod out of my bag and set it on my desk. I couldn't help but click on the home button. Once again, the device went on fine, displaying the same disabled message. It hadn't magically disappeared.

I didn't know what to do with the thing. I'd never "bricked" an Apple device. For a second I imagined creating a sort of time capsule for my grandchildren. I'd stick the Touch in a box with a charger and a note that said "Open in 2056," code included.

But that would be silly. Soon I found myself plugging a 30-pin connector into the iPod Touch and reviewing the instructions online for how to get the device into DFU mode. I tried three or four times, holding the buttons down as hard I could, the power button literally digging into the bone of my index finger. I was about to give up when I heard an unfamiliar chime and looked up at my computer to see a message that had me looking for someone to chest bump.

"iTunes has detected an iPod in recovery mode. You must restore this iPod before it can be used with iTunes."


Twenty minutes or so later I was looking at a completely restored iPod Touch third-generation updated with the latest version of iOS 5. I logged onto my home network and installed a few apps that I'd already bought. The device was working better than it ever had.

I guess I didn't have to go to the Genius Bar after all.

Resurrection complete (click image to enlarge). David Carnoy/CNET