Meet the supergeeks

Bluetooth bother? Hard-drive hell? The 'Geniuses' at London's new Apple Store want to help. Really they do. Charles Arthur puts their powers to the test
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" Hi!" says Toby, who is dressed in a uniform of a black long-sleeved T-shirt and black trousers. Toby is pleased to meet me. So is his colleague Rycherde (pronounced "Richard"; it's a South African spelling). And Boz. And Neil. They're all really pleased to see me - and anyone else who might come to talk to them.

They are Geniuses. You know they are, because they work behind the Genius Bar in the newly opened Apple Store on Regent Street in London. The Genius Bar is where you will go if your iPod has frozen and refused all attempts to revive it (because the magic trick that worked on the older models - pressing the fast-forward and rewind buttons at the same time - isn't feasible on the new ones). Or if you've got two computers that won't talk to each other, that you badly need to talk to each other. Or you'd like an easy way to get your latest photos e-mailed daily at 5.23pm to Aunt Maisie.

And the Geniuses will aim to help. They don't dispense drinks, like bar staff; "They dispense advice," says Ron Johnson, a 20-year veteran of the retailing industry, who is now Apple Computer's senior vice-president of retail, and has overseen the opening of 98 other stores around the world.

Advice? Free advice? Now that's a commodity in short supply in this hectic retail world, especially where computers are involved. Anyone who owns a PC or mobile phone and has had something go wrong with either (or, heaven forfend, both) knows the modern endurance test involved: calling a number and then pressing buttons randomly, in between listening to Black Sabbath played at half-speed on syrupy violins, before an uncomprehending support person tries to deal with your problem in the shortest possible time because he or she is paid by the number of calls handled per day.

To be fair, life for the support person is not easy, either. Computers these days are incredibly complex, variable machines. The support problem is harder over the phone because of the computer's "graphical interface": the would-be helper can't see what you're doing. (Try explaining to someone how to tie their laces over the phone to get an idea of how hard it is.)

The Genius Bar is different. No phones. No rush. The relaxing long line of the bar is echoed by the hidden white lighting behind it, making the Geniuses stand out in their black garb. If your computer needs its laces tied, they can show you precisely how to do it. It's a whole new idea in aftercare, dreamed up one day by Johnson because, he says, "I had spent years at Target [a huge US discount-store chain] and I didn't know much about Apple stuff, and I thought, 'Gee, where would I find out?' I thought it would help me to be able to find out from a person."

His big reservation was that "generally, people who are technically strong don't have good people skills". But the Genius applicants surprised him. "Kids today have grown up with technology in the 1990s. They're comfortable with it." All that was needed then were friendly, outgoing applicants.

Lots of people, it turns out, want to be a Genius. When one left his position at Apple's store in Southern California recently, 268 people applied for the vacancy. At the new London store there were 50 applications for every one of the 14 Genius jobs.

The Genius Bar could be called the core of the Apple concept. The people all appear irredeemably nice and unswervingly faithful to their cause. Despite my best efforts, I can't get them to diss the opposition. Not Microsoft, the traditional "enemy" ("Microsoft writes good software, for the Mac, too," says Neil. "We sell it in the store, over there."). Not even the high-street chain Dixons, which many buyers see as setting a baseline for cramped, uninformed buying. ("I can't comment on that," says Toby, smiling.)

What's more, when you ask them something they don't know the answer to, they don't say, "Er, I dunno," in the time-honoured manner of staff in pretty much every major store in the land. They say - and I quote - "I don't know that specific information. I'll get back to you." And the Geniuses do know their stuff. Quiz them on how to make your Apple machine do this or that, and they will either know, or know who to ask, and turn up the response. This in itself may be the seed of a revolution for British retail: people who aren't working on commission, who are simply there to help you out, even if you're not buying anything, just because it makes you feel good.

Before talking to the Geniuses, I had imagined that attaining their position would be like something out of An Officer And A Gentleman - a platoon of would-be wizards stripping down computers and rebuilding them against the clock, while a swearing sergeant-major stood over them, with the laggards being winnowed out for taking too long or having a screw left over. Or that they'd be cramming for exams about the programming code underlying the shimmering Apple interface, and standing to attention while a quartermaster barked questions such as, "Which version of gcc was used to compile the core of version 10.2 of the OSX operating system?"*

It seems that's only half correct. The team were chosen after two interviews in the summer, and then taken through an intensive training course. And yes, they can take machines apart, says Boz Routledge, who used to be an IT manager for a music retailer.

In September they were thrown in at the deep end when they spent a week as the resident Genius Team at the San Francisco store. What was the hardest question they had to deal with? I ask Neil, Toby, Rycherde and Boz separately. Each goes off into a reverie, and fails to name anything. "We believe in doing things well," says Johnson. "It's all about earning recognition from customers. We believe that if we provide the right support, then that will help switch people to the Mac and expand our market share."

Ah, market share. In the world of computing, the divide between Windows and "the Mac" (as Apple's machines are often generically called) is as vast, and as small, as that between Britain and France. They speak different languages and have different cultures, and one (Windows, or Britain) has become dominant, while the other (Apple, or France) has had to learn to accommodate its more weighty sibling. This doesn't stop the French, or Apple users, having a strong sense of their own importance. And when Windows users find themselves embroiled in unpleasant, unstoppable wars against virus-writers, the Apple owners can stand aside, aloof, because the virus-writers' malice is aimed at Microsoft, the US company behind Windows, rather than at Apple.

Shops are a form of war: war with rivals, and a cooperative war with customers, who are sometimes so reluctant to part with their money. Johnson says the design mission of the store is to "wrap our arms around the customer" as soon as they walk inside. Nice for the customers; but also a clever business strategy for a company that has struggled in the past to make any impact on the computer-buying public. Like any other technology company, Apple must keep old customers and win new ones to survive. For its size, the company now is one of the leanest manufacturers in technology, principally because it makes very little; the engineers design, and the work is contracted out to others. Even the design of the Apple stores is contracted out, though obsessively reviewed every week by Johnson and Apple's CEO Steve Jobs. The London one has specially toughened glass for the main staircase, so that no light is blocked out by the stairs.

It's the sort of obsessive attention to detail that flows through the company, from Jobs right down to the Geniuses who await at the top of that glass staircase, ready to deal with just about anything you can throw at them.

Though it transpires there are limits. What, I asked Toby, if someone comes in and says their Windows computer isn't running correctly? "Ah," he said. "We can talk to them about moving to a Mac."

* If you knew the answer was 3.1, you really need to get out more