• OK, Here’s Another Final Panther Report

    April 23rd, 2005

    Some show business figures, and you know who they are, spend years staging final concerts. After a while it gets downright boring. Now I did promise that my first “Final” report on Panther would be the last, and I have to tell you I was very optimistic. I mean, it didn’t seem possible that Apple would mess up the update that would close the books on Panther development, right? Well, except for security updates of course.

    All right, so I was wrong. My optimism that Apple had gotten a hand on recent slips in quality control was ill-founded. As I wrote in last weekend’s newsletter, “some of the folks who updated to 10.3.9 are encountering startup crashes with Safari, or crashes when accessing Java-related content. Not a good sign.”

    I really believed that this was strictly a minor issue that wouldn’t affect too many people. But it seems the fates deemed otherwise, and the symptoms have become frequent enough for Apple to issue a Knowledge Base document on the subject. In suggesting a solution, Apple unknowingly (naturally!) paraphrases what I wrote in stating that “After updating to Mac OS X 10.3.9, some systems may have issues with Java applications and Java-enabled web sites when using Safari. Safari may unexpectedly quit, and standalone Java applications may unexpectedly quit or not launch.”

    The document suggests that, if you’re bitten by the bug, you should install or reinstall two updates. The first is Java 1.4.2 Update 2, and the second is Security Update 2005-002. These two solutions should eradicate the bug for good, or so Apple says. Or maybe a 10.3.10 is in the wings, despite the impending arrival of 10.4.

    Now mistakes do happen, but it seems Apple has had more than its share in Panther. As you recall, the initial release of 10.3 had an issue that caused some FireWire drives to fail in such a fashion that the data might not even be recoverable. Yes, the drive firmware was partly responsible, but I just think Apple was a little too anxious to get Panther out in advance of the 2003 holiday shopping season, and rushed to Golden Master without a thorough final range of testing.

    The same appears to be true for 10.3.9, for how could a bug that shows up in a lot of systems within minutes after installation of the update could possibly escape Apple’s notice? It may well be that, with time running out before Tiger is delivered, it cut a few corners in the final testing process. Or maybe the overworked software engineers who work in Apple’s operating system code mines were just a little too anxious to end the Panther era and move on.

    Whatever the cause, it does raise the specter of potential problems with 10.4. Does that mean a 10.4.1 or a 10.4.2 will be necessary to get a reliable version of Tiger? I sure hope not.

    If you look at the larger picture, of course, it is really amazing how Apple can deliver full operating system upgrades within a year or a year and a half, while Microsoft can’t seem to get a handle on its next system version, Longhorn. When I asked noted computer industry analyst Joe Wilcox, of Jupiter Research, about Apple’s marvelous development efficiencies in an interview taped for this week’s episode of The Tech Night Owl LIVE, he suggested that Apple’s closed ecosystem helped an awful lot. Microsoft has to deliver a product compatible with a much wider range of computing hardware, making its job a lot more difficult. Even after delays compounded by further delays, Microsoft has even worse difficulties delivering reliable system upgrades. In that universe, Apple still emerges triumphant.

    But there are troubling signs as Apple expands production and builds market share. Early defects still infect the hardware, such as the trackpad troubles that were reported in the latest versions of the PowerBook. Bugs that should have been spotted before release appear in Apple’s software. Now it’s probably not too significant in the scheme of things to have to release an update to an application, but an operating system is another matter, the impact far greater.

    Apple needs to bear down and get a handle on these problems. The stakes are a lot higher than they used to be. In the old days, devoted Mac users would forgive Apple for some quality control lapses here and there, although it became difficult from time to time. But folks who are beginning to desert Windows because of its unstable nature aren’t going to give Apple a second chance. If their new Macs aren’t bullet proof from the get go, they may just decide to chuck it all and break out that PC box and live with the malware. Why give up known problems for the unknown? Maybe the grass isn’t greener on the other side.

    Then again, maybe I’m too pessimistic. Maybe Tiger will be rock solid out of the box, and a 10.4.1 won’t be required right away. After all, does Apple really have a choice?

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