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Reality Check: A Look at Apple Reliability

Fascinating how things change. Back in the 1980s, when Macs became dominant in the publishing industry because of the LaserWriter and PageMaker, you didn’t read about the goings on at Apple in the mainstream press every single day. It’s hard to realize that Apple had a double digit market share way back when, although the total PC universe was a lot smaller. At the time, however, I was too busy earning that paycheck to think much about the computer I used to for my work.

I felt lucky when I only had one or two system crashes a day, that a floppy disk didn’t become corrupted, and that an attempt to output a high resolution document didn’t fail. No, things did not always “just work,” but you put up with the anomalies and the annoyances and persevered. Yes, there was also an occasional computer virus or two. I learned the hard way to get proper protection from such things, and accepted that, too, as the cost of doing business.

When System 7.0 arrived in the early 1990s, it ran like a slug on a 68000 Mac, but was only a tad less responsive on something with a more powerful processor, such as the IIci, with a 68030 chip. But suddenly, 8MB of RAM didn’t seem so massive, and I welcomed 32-bit addressing. The IIci and its predecessor, the IIcx, were dust magnets, by the way, and it would all gather in the rear of the floppy drive, which is why it would stop working until cleaned. You could say I lived in a dusty environment, and maybe you could say that about New York and New Jersey. But I didn’t shout to the skies that Macs were unreliable, especially after hearing the trials and tribulations of friends who used PCs. And, oh yes, crashes were a bit less frequent.

Of course things didn’t just get better over time. When the first Macs with PowerPC processors arrived in 1994, I noticed that they seemed to run slower than the Quadra. Product reviewers noticed that you had to use software especially compiled for the new chips to get any performance speedup. Doesn’t that sound familiar? I suppose these new models were better, but some were designed by what I felt were a bunch of lunatics who relished the pain you suffered when you had to pop a bunch of cable assemblies and even the logic board just to add memory. What were they thinking? What indeed.

Apple seemed to fall into a huge hole before long. In 1995, with the arrival of the first Macs with PCI slots (just like those in a high-end PC box of the time), the first operating system was a disaster. One or two crashes would be a revelation. Having it happen just 15 minutes after setting up a new computer was only the beginning of my woes, until Apple patched the system to make it sufficiently reliable that it required a mere one or two restarts a day. Sure, some of you went on for days without trouble, but as soon as you ran a resource hungry content creation application, you saw your Mac demonstrate its true colors.

And then there was the first PowerBooks with PowerPC chips, which shipped late and maybe should haven’t shipped at all, because they were so filled with hardware glitches. Apple even had to issue a recall to address power port, logic board and other ills. I sent back a 5300ce, which cost over five grand by the way, several times to fix one problem or another. One weird symptom was the appearance of some sort of sealant at the bottom of the screen bezel. I had to wonder, at times, whether it was infected by an alien parasite. In any case, with the proper cautionary explanations, I sold it to a local user group official, and he had to send it back to Apple again for repair before he found another victim to take it off his hands.

So today, when you look at the online chatter about Apple problems and the first real virus infection in years, you have to wonder what they’re complaining about. We’ve grown so accustomed to the Mac OS on Unix that up time’s of less than three or four weeks is absolutely unacceptable. Yes, there is still that occasional hardware glitch, and extended repair program. But today if a group of people are affected by what they perceive to be a defect, they don’t just send their products to Apple or a third party repair shop to fix the problem, they file a class action lawsuit. Of course, if the legal action is successful, the lawyers will make millions and you will end up with an offer for a coupon to save a few dollars on your next purchase or a tiny rebate. Was it all worth it?

Today, anything that slows down your Mac, even for a fleeting second, is a major issue that Apple must repair forthwith. In the days when there were several powerful viruses a year on the Mac platform, you didn’t see it blasting from a thousand and one tech columns across the free world. Today, a single infection, even one that really isn’t so damaging in the scheme of things, is portrayed by some as a major problem confronting Apple that it must address forthwith before things get out of hand.

At the same time, millions of Windows users confront thousands of malware variations every single year and only the very few that can bring businesses to their knees get reported. How many Mac users were affected by the recently discovered Oompa-Loompa strain? The reports say perhaps several hundred, but it is pictured as an example that the Mac has finally entered the real world of personal computing.

So do you really long for the good old days?