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The Leopard Report: What About Rolling Back an Update?

I applaud Apple’s decision to build Time Machine as part of Mac OS X Leopard; I really do. Far too few Mac users have any form of backup regimen, and even when things go badly, some of you still don’t learn from your mistakes, so it could happen all over again.

But Time Machine, at least in the form currently described by Apple in its Leopard preview information, has some limitations. One significant shortcoming is the fact that the backup must be stored on another drive, or network share. Why is this bad? Well, as far as backups are concerned, that’s the preferred procedure, of course, and that’s a good thing.

However, what if you install a Mac OS 10.5 update — of which there will probably be plenty — and something goes wrong? What then? Well, in theory at least, you should perform your backup ahead of the update installation. In fact, that’s always a good idea with any major software change, in case you run into trouble.

So, yes, you backup your files on your external FireWire drive, for example, and then install the upgrade. Something goes wrong, and your Mac crashes right and left. What to do?

Well, you could, I suppose, restore your system from Time Machine, to the version that preceded the update. Again, this assumes that you did run a backup first.

But just how would this transpire? It’s a whole lot more involved than just restoring a few photos from your iPhoto library, since we’re talking of a full system here consisting of several gigabytes of data.

And what would happen if, for example, you installed this update on your Apple note-book, while on the road. Now maybe it’s not such a good idea to install updates under these circumstances, since most of you won’t have a backup drive at hand. In other words, there would be no access to your Time Machine files or the backup files you might have created with a different application.

Do you see what I’m getting at?

Now imagine, just imagine, if Apple decided to build into Leopard a feature already available to Windows Vista users? What’s that? Well, it’s known as Previous Systems, which the ability to roll back your system should an upgrade or a driver installation fail to “take” properly. It’s all done from your startup drive, so you don’t need to have another device handy, since the previous system revision is on hand in case it’s needed.

This is surely not beyond Apple’s capability, and it’s a feature that, frankly, should have arrived long ago.

Consider what might happen now if you installed a Tiger security or system upgrade and something went wrong. This is, my friends, not something that’s beyond the ream of possibility. Just take a look at the troubleshooting reports over at MacFixIt, and you’ll see that a fair number of people run into difficulties of one sort or another under these circumstances. These issues don’t just arise with Apple updates. You could, perhaps, install a printer driver, particularly for a multifunction device where lots of system components may be involved, and suddenly you run into a spate of crashes when trying to print a document.

Indeed, there are a number of areas where you could encounter the unsavory consequences of a bad installation process.

So what do you do then? Well, if it’s a peripheral driver you could, I suppose, install a previous version if one is at hand. But what if the older drivers were part and parcel of your original Mac OS X setup? What then? Well, you could grab ahold of your system DVD and just reinstall your printer drivers. But what if you left the DVD at home, and you’re at the office?

Things are far more difficult with a system update, where the only way to revert to a previous installation is to either perform a clean install or restore from your backup — assuming you have one at hand. And that’s not going to be a fast process by any means, even if you could restrict the restoration process to the operating system.

Yes, Apple has invested a lot of time and energy telling us how Microsoft has been working overtime copying the best parts of Mac OS X. It’s not that Apple hasn’t had any qualms about borrowing a few ideas before, of course. When it comes to the Previous Systems feature of Windows Vista, I’m sure Apple could do a far better, easier to use variation.