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Problems infest Apple Club

Apple's foray into e-commerce has had a disastrous start. Users complain of registration delays, trouble entering the site, and privacy issues.

| Macworld Expo SAN FRANCISCO
--Apple Computer's foray into electronic commerce with its Apple Club has had a disastrous start, fraught with complaints about registration delays, trouble entering the site, and privacy issues.

Apple opened Apple Club with much fanfare at Macworld Expo earlier this week. The club, which Apple calls the "convenient way to keep you and your Mac up to date," was designed to offer easy access to software upgrades and discounted products.

For $19.95 a year, members get an electronic newsletter, monthly messages from Apple CEO Gilbert Amelio, and access to a dedicated, high-speed network to download products. It is expected to be the first step toward offering Mac products online, creating a new distribution channel to supplement retail stores.

But Mac loyalists complain that the club is not inspiring confidence so far. Apple has acknowledged problems in email messages to users but said it has fixed them.

At first, the company blamed "technical problems" for not being able to process user registration. "All the data you submitted has been completely erased," according to one email Thursday. "We have since corrected the technical problem, and we encourage you to reapply. We apologize for this inconvenience."

Another message posted on the Apple Club site said: "We're sorry!!! Due to technical problems beyond our control, you may not have been able to access the site at certain times during the day. The problem has been fixed. Please try again! Thank you for your patience."

At Tuesday's launch event, Apple had added that it built a high-speed network to ensure quick, reliable access to the system. In the past, Apple users had complained that it took too long to download upgrades from the company's Web sites.

"We are fully aware of the situation, and we are taking actions as we speak," Philippe Bouissou, director of Apple Internet Commerce, said today. "We got an incredible number of people who want to sign up that was beyond our expectations."

He said that many of the problems occurred only on the first day of the launch. Nonetheless, they have made some Mac users livid.

"It's sheer buffoonery," Barry Karch told CNET. Karch, who has owned a Mac for 12 years, said the problems undermine Apple's efforts to build loyalty and fight off competition from the "Wintel camp," as he put it.

Karch also complained about Apple's request for the last four numbers of its members' Social Security number as part of the registration process. "The information can and is used for accessing bank information such as credit card and bank balances, among other things, in national databases," said Karch, who used to work in law enforcement.

"It's interesting that Apple has this track record of putting products out when it seems they never tested them," added Auri Rahimzadeh, who owns six Macs. "And you have it occur at Macworld, of all places. They insult their customers and hurt themselves at the same time."

About ten complaints about Apple Club have been posted on the Macintouch.com Web site, a Mac computing site run by Ric Ford.

One user alleged that he was charged eight times for the annual fee because of a billing mistake; another said he had been billed four times. But in an email message to its members, Apple insisted that no user credit cards have been billed.

Another member complained that Apple operators did not have any information on some discounts being offered through the new service. "Apple Club has a long, long way to go to be worth $19.95," one said.

The Macintouch site summed up the problems this way: "Apple Club is an embarrassment to the company. We advise staying well clear of this mess."

Apple's Bouissou reiterated that the problems have been fixed. Indeed, many other users said they were satisfied, though some did have problems at first.

"I too had problems registering on the first day the club 'opened.' However, the next day I registered fine," Mac user John Byrne said. "I also just completed some downloads at speeds much higher than I was getting from other Apple Servers. Plus, I got a cool free CD-ROM that retails for more than the $19.95 membership fee. All in all, the Apple Club looks fine to me."