• The Tiger Report: We Need Automatic Maintenance!

    March 12th, 2005

    From time to time, I’ve suggested that Apple is missing the boat if it expects its customers to have to concern themselves about some of the routine maintenance chores required of Mac OS X. The Mac is supposed to be the computer that just works, but some functions require you to leave it on during the wee hours when certain Unix-related tasks are performed. That surely goes against the grain for most Mac users, because your computer would be asleep or shut down during those hours.

    The reason this happens is because of that Unix-based heritage. Unix computers were designed to work 24/7 without missing a beat, but when Apple used it as the core for Mac OS X, these characteristics were never changed, although it appears to be something that can be done quite easily.

    Of course, it is perfectly true there are a number of third party tools that put a friendly face on various maintenance functions, such as those early morning scripts that run on a daily, weekly and monthly basis. These programs, which include Cocktail, Macaroni, Panther Cache Cleaner, and others, also let you set custom schedules, so the “missed” task run automatically in the background when your Mac is on. In addition, you’re able to repair disk permissions and lots of other stuff, even change a few interface functions if you’d like.

    Unix mavens can, of course, do everything in the Terminal, but the neat thing about Mac OS X is that you don’t have to.

    Now I do not want to put any third party developers out of business, but does it really make sense for Apple to leave that door open in the first place? Yes, it’s perfectly true that your Mac may continue to run pretty well without having to take these steps, but that’s not always the case. Repairing disk permissions, for example, prior to installing a system update, and again after the process is over, is something power users do to avoid potential troubles later on. But why can’t Apple do it as part of the installation process? For something that just works, you sure have to do a fair amount of manual labor.

    I see that some others are getting into the act. Author Hadley Stern, on his AppleMatters Web site, feels the pain when he writes: “while OS X is a far superior operating system to OS 9 there are still troubleshooting issues that pop-up. These issues are inherently anti-user because they make no sense whatsoever. I appreciate that OS X is built on top of a rock-solid Unix foundation. But I don’t appreciate that I have to run fix disk permissions every couple of weeks or so. Why isn’t this function built into the operating system?”

    Yes, why indeed.

    Ted Landau, the famous Mac troubleshooter, no doubt sells a fair amount of books telling us how to make Mac OS X whole again. But he also complains that “when things do go wrong, you may have to traverse some huge potholes to get to the solution. In many cases, even seasoned troubleshooters abandon any attempt to find the true cause of a symptom, ultimately just hoping to get the problem fixed without understanding why the fix worked.”

    His latest online column, for example, recounts the convoluted detective work involved in fixing a problem with a Lexmark printer. The symptom was fairly typical. When you tried to print a document, nothing happened.

    At the end of the day, the printer itself was at fault, the result of “spilled ink that had clogged up the ink cartridge holder.” And maybe the printer driver compounded the troubleshooting effort, because it failed to deliver a proper error message to the operating system about what went wrong. But Mac OS X could have delivered a front and center message about a problem communicating with the printer so you’d know the real source of the problem. As it was, Landau had to jump hoops and finally consult a procession of system logs to find out what was happening.

    Is it any wonder that he had to write an 1184 page book to show us how to sort things out?

    No I do not want to take away an income stream for Landau. He saw a need and, in the spirit of the American dream, decided to fill it. Right now Mac OS X Help Line, Panther Edition is without doubt the best book out there to help you get a handle on how to make your Mac sing again when things go badly.

    But like the authors of those system maintenance utilities, he is filling a gap created by Apple because Mac OS X isn’t proactive enough to help show us how to solve a serious problem. Why hasn’t Apple learned the lessons of history? Do you recall the Classic Mac OS, where you had to define such silly error messages as Type 1 and Type 11 to guess what went wrong?

    Now that Apple is moving towards, we hope, the near-term release of Tiger, I can hope those smart operating system programmers have devised a better way. Unfortunately, I can’t find anything in the publicly-disclosed documentation about Mac OS 10.4 about such matters. Then again, we don’t know all the details of those 200 new features yet, and maybe Apple still has some surprises to deliver.

    As to the maintenance chores, even if Tiger is at a late stage of development, I still think there’s time to do something. Certainly if third party utilities can get these things done, Apple could duplicate or improve on their efforts. I mean it’s not as if Apple doesn’t compete with its developers from time to time in other areas, as the creators of Konfabulator and Watson will tell you.

    As I said, I don’t want to put such talented folks as Tom Harrington, author of Macaroni, out of business. These developers deserve the chance to make a living. But if Apple delivered these features, as they should have done, perhaps Tom and all the rest could have used their talents in other ways to amaze us.

    Now perhaps better ways to handle system maintenance or deliver troubleshooting advice aren’t terribly sexy additions to a feature set. But that’s no reason to ignore them altogether.

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