I’m : a programmer, writer, podcaster, geek, and coffee enthusiast.

“iCloud Backup”

Last year, I bought my 87-year-old grandfather an iPad 2 to replace the who-knows-what PC that was frustrating him constantly. He only used the PC for email and playing music, so it was a no-brainer.

Since my grandparents live in Arizona and I usually only see them a few times each year, I can hardly ever provide in-person help. And telephone support is difficult: they’re not tech experts, they have trouble recognizing and describing interface elements, and they feel bad asking me for help because they know it’ll take a while. So usually, they just tolerate whatever problems are plaguing their technology and they don’t even tell me when something’s broken until months later.1

Here’s what my grandfather can do on the iPad:

And here’s what my grandmother can do on it:

My grandparents using FaceTime to see their great-grandson
I’ve never been able to convince them that “long distance” is now free and unlimited, so like phone calls, they both use FaceTime simultaneously to save time.

Here are some things they can’t do on the iPad:

They’re not stupid — far from it. My grandmother beats us all in card games, figures people out spookily accurately within seconds, and can tell you everything that has happened to every character in every soap opera since the beginning of time. My grandfather is still a licensed and practicing civil engineer in two states, a high-school math and physics tutor and substitute teacher, and a recently retired competitive swimmer with quite a few gold medals.

They just didn’t have computers for the first 80 years of their lives, and they’d rather not spend their current years dicking around with Windows malware or Apple IDs.

The other day, my grandfather asked me if he could get rid of the who-knows-what PC for good, but he wanted to make sure that he could transfer his stuff to a new iPad in the future if this one ever broke. (Good question.) I told him to bring it to the nearby Apple Store and have them set up “ICLOUD BACKUP” for him. (He wrote that down.)

I figured that a “Genius” would quickly figure out whether it still had iOS 4, and if so, would just update it to iOS 5 or 6 and then set up iCloud backup.

But instead of doing what I assumed would be a non-destructive update, the Genius did a restore. And, apparently, didn’t explain what that was going to mean. My grandfather left me this voicemail:

“Hey Marco, I had the iCloud put on my iPad. Now I can’t even do anything with it. I figure before I give up the computer, I’m gonna have to download all of my music and all that. They didn’t tell me that was going to happen — I did it at the Apple Store here…”

It’s easy for most of us around these parts to forget how badly technology still works for so many people. This is supposed to be the best we have today: an iPad, a routine OS update, an Apple Store, an automatic backup feature.

But even the iPad, while easy to use for routine tasks, still shows its computer heritage in clunky, ugly, techie ways like software updates and restores. And while Apple Stores have a reputation for great service, there are enough counterexamples happening every day that I’m not sure how much longer that reputation will last.

This seemingly simple procedure failed the customer miserably, yet I doubt the Genius thinks it was anything but a success. Here you go, all restored and set to back up your data! (After you put some data back on here!)

The Genius probably thought, Of course he syncs it with his computer regularly.

Or There doesn’t appear to be much here. It shouldn’t take him long to set it back up again.

It wouldn’t be the first time a technology expert lacked empathy for a customer, or made bad assumptions about what would be fast and easy for the customer to do on his own — especially when deciding to perform an easy, predictable, cure-all “restore”.2

And the iPad wasn’t the first personal computer, nor will it be the last, that we all proclaimed to be finally easy enough for everyone to use. Sure, it’s easy to use when everything’s working and time stands still, but that’s about as useful as when a developer says, “It worked on my machine.”

We, all of us in technology, can do better than this. And we have a long way to go.

  1. To avoid the hassle of home connectivity, even though they already had DSL for the aforementioned PC, I got them the Verizon iPad and quietly set it up to auto-bill my credit card. It just worked, anywhere… for a month, then it stopped for some unknown reason and they didn’t mention it to me until two months later.

    I had them get the cable company to come to their house and set up Wi-Fi (there was no way I’d put them through a router self-installation), and the problem was solved… for a while, until that stopped working for some reason, and they didn’t tell me for six months that their iPad had no connectivity and the only thing they could do on it was play music and Solitaire. ↩︎

  2. In the first version of this, I said the restore was unnecessary. I’ve now been told that it’s impossible to go from iOS 4 to 5 without all synced data being deleted as part of the upgrade. My apologies to the responsible Genius for questioning their technical abilities, but I stand by my callout of their communication. ↩︎