• The Tiger Report: Sowing the Seeds of Update Confusion

    May 21st, 2005

    Now that the 10.4.1 update has spread across the planet, Mac users are weighing in on what it fixes, what it doesn’t fix, and the new bugs it creates. But in all this there is one large problem, and it appears to stem from Apple’s efforts to make the update as small as possible, at least the one you see in the Software Update preference panel.

    Ah, the law of unintended consequences rears its ugly head yet again!

    Consequences? Well, when the update first appeared, I noticed that the version that appeared in my son’s 17-inch PowerBook was approximately 19MB in size, yet the one you see at Apple’s support site is listed at 37MB. So what’s wrong here? Are some Mac users being deprived of some of the fixes present in 10.4.1 in the interests of keeping the file size small? Not exactly. The real truth here is that Apple is trying to help you, by delivering a file that strictly supports a specific system setup.

    This may not matter with a broadband connection, but for the millions of you out there who still get online via dial-up, it’s a pretty significant factor. But here’s where things get muddled. What if you have more than one Mac, as many of us do? What if they are different models? Now, if your Internet connection is bandwidth starved, you’d rather not have to download that file more than once, but here you might have to. That is true even if you select the option in Software Update to Install and Keep Package; in other words, keep the update file on hand to deploy on other Macs. Why? Because that file won’t install on the wrong Mac, and this isn’t something that’s altogether clear in the meager information that comes with the update. True, there is a Knowledge Base document on the subject, and it is quite forthcoming on the logic behind offering different versions. But how many Mac users read those things?

    Here’s a little of what Apple says on the subject: “The sizes of software updates can vary for computers running Mac OS X 10.3.4 or later. This is a feature of Software Update, which automatically detects the best update for your computer.

    “Sometimes, Software Update preferences is able to offer a ‘smaller-sized Delta’ update than you might expect, or smaller than what you might see on other computers installing the same update. The ‘smaller Delta’ updates are offered when some Mac OS X system files can be modified instead of replaced in their entirety….Smaller-sized Software Updates take less time to download and install than regular-sized Delta or Combo updates.”

    Suddenly, a time saver creates a brand new problem that you didn’t expect. Surely Apple must know this, or do they feel most Mac users have just one? I also wonder just how many support calls Apple’s highly-rated customer service people have to field on this issue, but that’s a question for which no answer will ever be provided. Even Consumer Reports, which keeps tabs on the quality of technical support among the various computer makers, because those surveys don’t provide details about the most common questions.

    Is there a solution? Well, the immediate answer, of course, is to get all of your operating system fixer uppers direct from Apple’s site if you have two or more Macs of different types. You’ll have to endure a much longer download, but what choice is there?

    Unfortunately the ultimate solution won’t be at hand until more of you are on broadband networks and maybe that’ll happen in a few years. Meantime, there is another way for Apple to help you, but the option isn’t being offered, and that is an annual operating system subscription program. You pay a fixed fee, and receive all the needed updates on CD shortly after they become available for download. That way, you are never far behind the curve. In fact, waiting may be a blessing in disguise sometimes, because there’s enough time for Mac troubleshooting sites to report if there are any show stoppers that might make you want to skip a particular update.

    The subscription would, naturally, include the next version of Mac OS X, whenever that arrives and whatever cat name is selected. I wouldn’t presume to suggest how much you’d want to pay or what such a service is worth. Perhaps it could be offered in two ways, one for .Mac members, and another for the rest of you. Figure on an annual rate of, say, $99 for the standalone service and perhaps $169 for the combo with .Mac. If you assume there will be a major operating system upgrade every 18 months or so, it’s not such a bad deal, because you’re not paying all that much extra to get those regular update CDs.

    Now it is true that Apple has the skeleton of such a program in place for business users. If you buy 10 seats (user licenses) or more, you can opt for the Apple Maintenance Program. For a fixed up-front fee, “you will receive every major upgrade release to Mac OS X.” What about the maintenance updates? No, they aren’t included but, in my not-so-humble opinion, they should be.

    And I see no reason why small businesses and home users can’t qualify for a full service maintenance program too, one that includes everything, even the tiniest update. Wouldn’t you find it easier that way to cope with this stuff? I could see a little confusion, of course, particularly after you receive a bunch of those CDs and want to sort them out, but if they came in an envelope that’s clearly labeled by date or version number (no fine print please), it won’t be that difficult to manage. Or at least, that’s how it seems from this tiny corner of the universe.

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