• The Tiger Report: Why Can’t the Mac OS Fix Itself?

    May 28th, 2005

    An application quits, and you see a message asking you to decide what to do next. You can, among the choices, decide you just want to reopen the application and maybe subject yourself to more punishment. Perhaps click the button that promises to send a report about the problem to Apple, hoping that, among thousands and thousands of other reports, someone will take notice and do something about it.

    But that’s just the beginning. Your Mac begins to slow down big time after installing new software, perhaps that 10.4 upgrade you just received. All too often you see a multilingual message telling you that you must restart your computer. Nothing works the way it should, and you wonder whether it’s all worth the fuss and bother. If you’re a switcher from the Windows platform, you begin to regret your decision. You come to believe you’re simply trading aggravation for more aggravation. Why are personal computers so unstable?

    Consider the situation. You, the Mac user, have a computer with processor that, if it’s a G4 or G5, can be regarded as a supercomputer. Or at least that’s what Apple tells us. It’s supposed to deliver the same processing power as the computer that once filled an entire large room. It’s supposed to “just work,” and yet that’s just a pipedream. If the family vehicle became that unreliable, you’d hardly make it to the corner convenience store without stalling or suddenly accelerating for no reason.

    A supercomputer on a desktop and it can’t figure out how to fix itself. What’s wrong with this picture? This isn’t to say that there aren’t tools around that will repair problems. If you know your way around the command line, you can take advantage of a rich set of arcane processes, such as repairing disk permissions, updating prebinding, fixing the launch database and lots of other stuff. But what does all that mean, and why do you need to keep your Mac running in the wee hours of the morning to run some minor housekeeping chores? Didn’t you buy a Mac because you didn’t want to deal with command lines?

    Of course, a few smart programmers figured out ways to put friendly faces on Mac OS X’s maintenance functions, so you can just point and click. That assumes, of course, that you know which button to click and what it’s supposed to do for you. Or maybe you just click everything in sight and hope for the best. Does this make any sense to you? It doesn’t to me, and I am supposed to know my way around the typical troubleshooting dilemmas. Why does it have to be that way?

    Now I don’t pretend to understand the programming obstacles, but there ought to be self-checking processes that would determine whether permissions have gone amuck, whether the wrong application will launch when you try to open a document, whether preference files are corrupted. True, some of those maintenance utilities can be set to operate behind the scenes, on a prescheduled basis, so you know that at least some of the things that befuddle you will get fixed, whether the fix is needed or not.

    But remember that these utilities were created to fill gaps in the operating system, to perform the tasks that Apple didn’t for some reason, want to do for itself. Take a look at Cocktail, Macaroni, Tiger Cache Cleaner and all the rest. Most or all were created by just one or two clever programmers, usually working part time in the evenings or on weekends. Apple Computer has a staff of hundreds of men and women working on Mac OS X. Hundreds of millions of dollars of research and development money is on hand to fund their work. Tiger has 220 new or improved features, but none of those features will fix your Mac for you.

    Why wasn’t some sort of self-repair routine included among those features? Can’t be done? Maybe, and don’t take this seriously, maybe Apple needs to hire some of the developers of those Mac OS X maintenance programs and give them the resources they need to build these features into the operating system. Or maybe self-repair just doesn’t rate so high on the list of priorities, and that’s unfortunate.

    Now I’m not going to revisit the argument whether some of these maintenance chores, such as repairing disk permissions, are really necessary. I’d rather think that all this stuff is only required when things have really gone wrong but, as I said, it shouldn’t come to that point. If the system can’t fix itself, there ought to be a message telling you what to do next; a help message, if you will. I mean, Tiger already has a feature that diagnoses the state of your network if you can’t get online, so why not take it to the next logical step?

    Why indeed? If Apple’s bean counters added up the expense of providing technical support for matters that could have been dealt with automatically by some sort of built-in repair routine, I bet they’d be shocked. And maybe those figures would offer an incentive to set things right, and I’d like to see happen it long before 10.5 arrives.

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