The Great Time Machine Conspiracy

February 14th, 2008

Apple has always had a love and hate relationship with its customers. In the old days, when you called support, you sometimes got a downright hostile attitude, and getting a solution to your problem wasn’t very easy, and sometimes doomed to failure.

In those days, I avoided calling Apple at all custs.

At the time, Apple also offered a pathetic 90-day warranty. Today, products are all guaranteed for a year, except for 90 days of free phone support. AppleCare extends that to three years for Macs, two years for iPods and iPhones.

This isn’t to say that Apple’s tech support is perfect. Although they get high marks in Consumer Reports — no friend to Macs by the way — and elsewhere, nothing is perfect. I’ve occasionally run into delays and difficulties getting a problem resolved, but I usually succeed in the end without having to drop my name into the appropriate departments at One Infinite Loop.

Indeed, it does seem to me that Apple wants to take care of its customers, simply because it’s good business and they’re here to make a profit. But that raises the eternal question of Time Machine and why you can’t backup via a wireless connection. This was a feature promised for Leopard, but dropped from the feature-set before 10.5 came out.

Why did this happen? Well, it may just be that Apple simply couldn’t get he feature to work reliability. After all, you don’t want a backup with corrupted data. That may be worse than having no backup at all, especially if you try to restore your files in part or an entire drive.

So that died down, until Steve Jobs introduced Time Capsule last month. On the surface, Time Capsule is simply an AirPort Extreme married to a backup drive. Jobs said the drive was a “server level” mechanism, and I won’t dispute the contention. When it’s out, you’ll read performance results to see how it fares, but the key with a backup is longevity. Will you be able to get years of reliable performance before the mechanism gives up the ghost?

The real furor arose over the fact that Time Capsule can backup wirelessly, so just what is going on here? Did Apple plan all along to keep this feature from us unless we bought another product from them? What about existing AirPort Extremes and the USB drives we can connect to them? Is there ever going to be a fix?

Came the 10.5.2 update, and nothing was mentioned about offering the ability of Time Machine to function on wireless connections. A few people tested backups, just to see if this was perhaps an unannounced “feature,” and it still doesn’t work.

Time Capsule is still on the agenda for a February delivery. If you go to The Apple Store to place your order, that’s all the illumination you get, as we conclude the first half of the month.

So what about existing hardware? Is it all about Time Capsule and the plot to get you to pay more money? I don’t think so, and we shouldn’t go overboard because 10.5.2 didn’t contain the fix. Maybe it requires a firmware change in AirPort Extreme, and that will arrive when Time Capsule leaves the shipping plant.

But maybe, just maybe, there’s something in the AirPort Extreme’s design that prevents wireless backups via Time Machine from working reliably. Perhaps Time Capsule includes a redesigned Wi-Fi router that does support the feature, and there’s no way to retrofit that capability into legacy products.

Or maybe not.

It may very well be that the reason Time Capsule isn’t shipping yet is because that feature still won’t function, and Apple has every intention of offering it as an update so all of you can benefit too. To be perfectly honest, I don’t know, but I do believe that, in the end, Apple usually tries to do the right thing, and if it can’t happen, they’ll have a good explanation.

So before you sign those petitions and/or call your lawyers about class-action suits, please be patient. Remember that Apple did fix most of the problems with Leopard’s translucent menus, the menu bar and Stacks in 10.5.2. You complained, and they listened.

Let’s cut them a little slack, at least for now. If Time Capsule ships and nothing is done to add wireless Time Machine backups to other models in the AirPort Extreme line, then it will make sense to complain with appropriate fervor.

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10 Responses to “The Great Time Machine Conspiracy”

  1. Bill George says:

    Gene, I’ve read this article in Macworld- March ’08 issue page -43. This article describes how to use Time Machine to back up computers to a drive on a network.

    Well, I tried it, and it works! I use my airport network to TM my macbook and Mini’s to an drive in my tower.


  2. Tell us more, for those who don’t have a copy at hand. 😀


  3. Dana Sutton says:

    Sure you can use it, if you hitch your backup device to a networked Mac and then access it from other Macs on your network via Personal File Sharing. That’s not the issue. The problem is that prior to the release of Leopard, Apple seems to have dangled the prospect of Time Machine before the eyes of prospective purchasers as a selling point for AirPort Extreme…they bought…then Apple disabled this feature, which had existed in beta versions of Leopard, leaving these new Extreme owners sucking the fuzzy end of the lollipop. That’s one group which appears to have a very legitimate beef, since they can probably claim they were misled by Apple’s advertising, or at least by information Apple was putting out in its pre-release publicity. You may or may not think another group (to which I happen to belong) also has a beef: those of us who were aware that beta versions of TM could handle ethernet (SMB or Samba) backup devices and so invested in such devices to back up multiple Macs networked on a LAN. Sure, there are third-party utilities that allow the use of these devices, but evidently there is a risk of losing all your TM data when the device fills up. Again, reports of the list of 10.5.2 improvements/fixes Apple supplied to its beta testers seems to have included a fix for this latter category, but when the update was released this fix appears to have been suppressed (or at least it is not mentioned on Apple’s “About the Leopard 10.5.2 Update” page, and I’ve heard no suggestion that the fix survived to GM). Apple may have had good reasons for all these decisions, but it’s easy to see how they can feed customer resentment and paranoia). On the other hand, “About the Leopard 10.5.2 Update” doesn’t mention the kind of changes in TM that I assume are necessary to make it work with Time Capsule, and so it may well be that we’ll see a new TM release before TC hits the market. Let’s wait to see what that release looks like before jumping to conclusions. If Apple does release a TM which only works with TC, then at least the members of the first group may well have grounds for a class action suit. Probably not the second group, but it would be a very smart public relations gesture for Apple to make TM accessible to us too. And let’s not forget that there are plenty of other backup apps with archiving capacity that can run over wireless and ethernet networks, and that TM isn’t the only fish in the sea. So if TM doesn’t pan out for us, we’re not entirely helpless.

  4. Al says:

    I can’t even get my AEBS to reliably attach a USB Hard Disc, let alone back up wirelessly to it. I suspect AEBS needs a major firmware update before running Time Machine over wifi on it. Aside from the USB Disc issue, I’ve found AEBS has always been a little ‘temperamental’ — it’s rock-steady reliable once the green light turns on but each time I need to change the settings its always a crapshoot whether or not I’ll need to unplug/replug the power cord when I click the update button.

  5. Paul says:

    I also found I could back-up my powerbook wireless with Time machine if the back-up drive was attached to my Mac Mini in the other room. I did notice that Time machine created a disk image on the back-up drive then mounts that on my powerbook prior to back-up then dismount the disk image when done. So I also think they are working on getting this to work with the AEBS if possible

  6. Charlie Pizer says:

    There is another possibility. Apple may have dropped the feature because most USB drives are terribly unreliable, and they didn’t want their customers to get burned. Note that SJ said in the Keynote that Time Capsule is aggressively priced. I don’t think this is a scheme to make more money from customers, and I don’t think Apple would have gone to the trouble to make Time Capsule if they are planning to add support for USB drives to the existing base stations. Just think, how many USB drives have just up and failed on you? I’m up to 3 now.

  7. Patrick says:

    “This was a feature promised for Leopard”

    Citation, please.

  8. “This was a feature promised for Leopard”

    Citation, please.

    It was actually on Apple’s site at the time, and a lot has been posted in various online publications since then. Feel free to do a little Google research and you’ll come away with plenty of information.


  9. BobS says:

    “It was actually on Apple’s site at the time, and a lot has been posted in various online publications since then. Feel free to do a little Google research and you’ll come away with plenty of information.”

    Yes, it was initially posted on the Leopard Preview page but it should be noted that the preview page also contained the standard “subject to change” disclaimer any beta program carries. Apple made no firm promises about Time Machine or any other Leopard feature. Unfortunately, some people jumped the gun by not heeding the disclaimer and chose to make a purchase based on a feature that was not locked in. I do not blame Apple for people acting impulsively in spite of a warning. I know that I decided to wait until the official Leopard release to determine how I would handle Time Machine backups.

    As others have suggested, the lack of Time Machine backup over an AE may have to do with the reliability of using a USB hard drive. It is worth noting that Time Capsule seems to employ a SATA drive rather than USB. If there are problems with the integrity of a backup over USB, Apple is being far more responsible to its users by not creating a false sense of security in spite of known with data restoration.

    Nonetheless, I hope that Apple will resolve whatever issue is preventing them from offering Time Machine backups over Airport Extreme-connected USB drive.

  10. RM says:

    I can understand Apple pulling the plug on TM backups to an Airdisk– I would not want that false sense of security… however they do owe those of us who bought the AEBS for its Airdisk/TM capability an explanation. Not only is the Airdisk functionality spotty, the AEBS itself seems to be less than stable. SJ needs to slow down and make sure that what Apple is promising is deliverable because this isn’t the only thing Apple has released recently that’s beta-like in its bugginess. They should watch out before the whole “it just works” notion loses all credibility and their switchers abandon them for PCs again.

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