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  • Apple and the Great Time Capsule Conspiracy

    March 20th, 2008

    A lot can happen in a few weeks. It wasn’t so long ago that some of you — helped along by a few tech pundits with a conspiratorial bent — were absolutely convinced that the only way you could backup your data wirelessly with Time Machine would be to purchase a Time Capsule. This product, which combines the gigabit AirPort Extreme base station with a 500GB or 1TB “server-grade” hard drive, was introduced at the Macworld Expo in January.

    When Leopard’s Time Machine was first announced, one of its promised features was, Air Disk, a wireless backup capability. This would be a boon to those of you who have Mac note-books at your home or office, and don’t want to tether yourself to a wired connection when backup time approached. Surely the MacBook Air, where “wired” is an afterthought, would benefit.

    Unfortunately, Air Disk vanished without explanation. Yes, their legalese makes it quite clear that Apple is free to change, add or remove features at its discretion. I felt at the time that wireless backups were removed from Leopard because the feature just hadn’t come together quickly enough to make the initial release. Maybe it would return later.

    But with Time Capsule shipping last month, and no change in the 10.5.2 update, I suppose you had to wonder whether the skeptics were right after all. But if this was Apple’s game plan all along — to force you to buy an extra appliance to get wireless backups — it would be a stupid move on their part. Besides, how did Time Capsule actually differ from AirPort Extreme — other than the presence of an internal hard drive and power supply — to allow the feature to appear in the former, and remain absent in the latter.

    In the past week, Apple has tantalized us about a possible solution.

    Last week, there was the AirPort Utility 5.3.1 update that, alas, didn’t bring us Air Disk. Then, on Wednesday, a pair of updates appeared in your Software Update preference pane that looked mighty hopeful. First came Apple Time Machine and AirPort Updater 1.0, and the promise of “compatibility improvements for using Time Machine with Time Capsule, as well as AirPort driver fixes.”

    The second download, The Time Capsule, AirPort Extreme and AirPort Express Base Station with 802.11n Firmware 7.3.1 updates, “include bug fixes. AirPort Extreme Base Station with 802.11n* Firmware 7.3.1 also includes security fixes.”

    All right, not a word about adding wireless TIme Machine backups either. However, once lots of Mac users got into the act, the evidence was clear. This was it! Apple finally made good on its long-forgotten promise to allow you to run Air Disk with 802.11n AirPort Extreme and AirPort Express base stations. Better late than never.

    Unfortunately, Apple’s penchant for corporate secrecy again hurt their image. They could have sent out a press release about the pending update early on and that would be it. Even better, Steve Jobs might have added a few words about it during his Macworld Expo keynote: “We know you’ve been eagerly waiting for wireless backups with Time Machine. I want to assure you that we we have an update in the works for the latest generation of AirPort Extremes, but it may take a couple of months to finish. So just be patient.”

    End of story, end of conspiracy theories.

    But it didn’t happen, and this is yet another example of where Apple’s paranoia can end up being its own worst enemy. Sure, we know that event marketing has served them well. Rather than restrict major product announcements to a Macworld or WWDC, almost every Tuesday morning you look for the signs that something’s afoot at Apple. Is the online store down? Are the rumor mills rampant with news that an existing product has been declared “end of life,” or that a new part number and set of product specs “accidentally” appeared on a European site?

    This isn’t to say that it always happens on Tuesday. The 802.11n version of AirPort Express, for example, debuted this past Monday. Or maybe Apple just likes to change its strategy every so often to keep us from becoming too complacent.

    But the whole episode does reinforce my view that, in the end, Apple usually does the right thing for its customers. Sometimes you feel — as with the iPhone SDK — that they have to be dragged kicking and screaming to reach the proper solution. But even then I think such a plan was already under development even before the iPhone debuted and they were just looking for the proper and safe way to implement a way for developers to officially develop iPhone and iPod touch software. Maybe the negotiations with Microsoft to license ActiveSync technology took longer than expected. Microsoft, after all, even with a large check dangling in front of them, can hardly be expected to act quickly. They have far too many layers of bureaucracy.

    In the end, though, I think Apple would do better to open the curtains just a little wider from time to time, because the lack of a timely statement or explanation can easily lead to negative conclusions.



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    15 Responses to “Apple and the Great Time Capsule Conspiracy”

    1. shane blyth says:

      Interesting read. Paranoid seems to be a good word to describe some of their possible thinking processes. Oh well I just joined up with http://www.evernote.com interesting little app not sure if you have watched the vids.

    2. sfmitch says:

      How can you say that Apple had ‘to be dragged kicking and screaming to reach the proper solution’ and in the very next sentence say ‘such a plan was already under development even before the iPhone debuted”? Those 2 ideas are completely at odds. Apple most definitely planned the SDK all along, there was no dragging and/or kicking here.

      Apple clearly had a plan to introduce the iPhone / iPod Touch PLATFORM and have been executing the plan very, very well. The scope of the PLATFORM is really amazing – Hardware (iPhone & Touch), Software (OS X ported to a mobile platform), carrier relationships, mobile iTunes store, Starbucks partnership, Webapps, SDK & 3rd party apps along with Mobile Apps store, Enterprise friendly featuers (active sync, exchange, etc.). All of this in one year!

      Apple had a plan (a damn good plan) and have been executing it nearly perfectly.

      People are impatient – put things in perspective and it should make you go WOW!

    3. Actually you seem to have glossed over the two sentences you quoted and thus overlooked the qualifiers. Had you done that, you’d realize there is no contradiction at all.

      Peace,
      Gene

      Sent from my iPhone

    4. Dana Sutton says:

      Yes, there was more than a little paranoia concerning this issue, on sites like the Ars Technica Mac discussion section the chatter abouyt it rose to the level of something like true hysteria . But Apple is maybe a little bit at fault. No doubt because their legal department is afraid of nuisance lawsuits they are very reticent about admitting bugs or other problems, maybe excessively so (and this is why their disclosures about the contents of the updates they release is so infuriatingly vague). This is s. o. p. for them, and, yes, their original announcement of this feature in advance publicity prior Leopard’s release came with the usual “subject to change” notices. But when Steve announced it at a Developers’ Conference he didn’t add any similar caveats, so to a certain extent his personal reputation was on the line, and both for this reason and because Apple must have been keenly aware of all the paranoia going around, it might have been wiser and healthier for them to have broken with their usual policy and been a little more candid about the reason for pulling this feature from Leopard’s GM and their intention to release a fix when it was available. By the way, now Time Machine works with USB hard disks via Air Port Extreme, but the situation for SMB servers attached to their APE by an ethernet connection remains unimproved (does anybody want to make me an offer on a 1-TB Lacie device currently gathering dust in my closet?). Maybe Apple thinks this is such a small slice of the market that they don’t have to worry about it.

    5. rwahrens says:

      I want to correct a very common misconception here.

      I, too thought, “Oboy, this is what I bought that Airport for!” Alas, it is not to be.

      While a lot of people on various sites report being able to use it as backup, when I called Apple Support for assistance getting it to work, I was told that Apple does NOT support this function!

      I posted information on the Apple discussion boards, and was soon joined by another user who reported being told the same thing.

      So, slow down, cowboy, you’re moving too fast! I think we need a very obvious clarification from Apple to clear this up, but in the meantime, be careful. If you use Time Machine to back up to an Air disk and it goes south on you, don’t expect Apple to help pull those fried chestnuts outta the fire!

    6. I want to correct a very common misconception here.

      I, too thought, “Oboy, this is what I bought that Airport for!” Alas, it is not to be.

      While a lot of people on various sites report being able to use it as backup, when I called Apple Support for assistance getting it to work, I was told that Apple does NOT support this function!

      I posted information on the Apple discussion boards, and was soon joined by another user who reported being told the same thing.

      So, slow down, cowboy, you’re moving too fast! I think we need a very obvious clarification from Apple to clear this up, but in the meantime, be careful. If you use Time Machine to back up to an Air disk and it goes south on you, don’t expect Apple to help pull those fried chestnuts outta the fire!

      Understand that this feature is only a few days old, so it’ll take some time to see whether Apple support continues to take the “unsupported” stance or drops that position.

      Peace,
      Gene

    7. gopher says:

      Apple very well knows the Osborne Effect. Every computer manufacturer is aware of it. So Apple will always keep its plans close to the hip, not revealing the when or where things might be released. It also knows that it shouldn’t release things until they are good and ready. Getting wireless hard drive connections working is no mean feat, as hard drives are notoriously unreliable when it comes to being told to turn on and then turn off again. If something hasn’t been properly cached, the directory might get damaged, or a file transfer might be interrupted and you get a corrupt file. I suspect Apple could initially only make it available to server grade hard drives (The Time Capsule drives fit that category) which are used to that kind of treatment. Soon Apple had to figure out a way to deal with run of the mill hard drives, and the reliability of USB connections which is less than ethernet.

    8. rwahrens says:

      I want to correct a very common misconception here.

      I, too thought, “Oboy, this is what I bought that Airport for!” Alas, it is not to be.

      While a lot of people on various sites report being able to use it as backup, when I called Apple Support for assistance getting it to work, I was told that Apple does NOT support this function!

      I posted information on the Apple discussion boards, and was soon joined by another user who reported being told the same thing.

      So, slow down, cowboy, you’re moving too fast! I think we need a very obvious clarification from Apple to clear this up, but in the meantime, be careful. If you use Time Machine to back up to an Air disk and it goes south on you, don’t expect Apple to help pull those fried chestnuts outta the fire!

      Understand that this feature is only a few days old, so it’ll take some time to see whether Apple support continues to take the “unsupported” stance or drops that position.

      Peace,
      Gene

      Yes, and in the meantime, people are using this ‘feature” and may well lose backups or even data because, if it really isn’t supported, it may well NOT work, and could bork people’s drives.

      So you have mass confusion, because for some it works, for some it doesn’t and for some only this way or that.

      So, until Apple puts out something that is official that contradicts what Apple support has said (which IS official) then you and others in the Mac media shouldn’t be telling people that it IS working! Because it is NOT working at anything like how a truly released and supported feature would be.

      Remember, the comments in those releases said NOTHING about this feature working or being officially introduced!

    9. Kaleberg says:

      The problem is simple. Systems development is hard. It isn’t just coding. Consumers demand that you both the release the product as soon as possible and that you release it after it has been out in the field for five or ten years and has all its wrinkles ironed out. Giving a fixed date for release just makes it harder. Do you release early and put up with complaints about releasing too early, or do you release later and get a reputation for vaporware?

      Microsoft tends to talk a lot about their future releases, and they have a reputation for overpromising and underdelivering. Boeing is at risk of losing its good reputation with the 787 Vaporliner. Apple tends not to talk all that much, but they tend to release things, and they tend to fix them when they were released prematurely. They aren’t saints, but they tend to be a bit cautious in their expectations management.

      Sure Apple tends to be secretive. This gives them much more internal flexibility given their limited resources. If they’ve promised X on date Y, they’t move their engineering focus. Even if they discover that a good implementation of X needs Z, they cannot stop and develop Z. They would have to throw together something just good enough to do X, and then later work on Z, then figure out how to do a retrofit that doesn’t break whatever kludge they pulled once it has been reverse engineered and heavily exploited.

      If you read Ars Technica’s articles on OS X development, one of the things you notice is that Apple is constantly tweaking things under the hood. When they did Time Machine, they implemented a mechanism for tracking file system modifications folder by folder. They could have put some obscure, Apple only hook into the file system, but other developers would have sought to use it. There would have been complaints about it being Apple only. Then other developers would start using it, and when Apple generalized the mechanism, there would have been bloody hell to pay.

      Having worked in the business, I have often had to choose between delivery and doing the right thing. Apple management tends to hide all this engineering business as part of their “it just works” marketing. This lets their engineers make better decisions and better products. While it may be frustrating to be outside of Apple wondering what is going fly down the chute next, Apple has a pretty good record.

    10. rwahrens says:

      Yeah, I get that, and hve been a fan of Apple’s for years.

      I have also tended to criticize them when needed, and now is one of those times.

      Here we have one of a couple of possible scenarios:

      1. This was intended to be released, and was poorly documented – that is to say, not at all. Internal communication was borked and Support didn’t get the word.

      2. This was never intended to be released, but somehow Engineering or whomever releases stuff screwed up, and Air disks somehow get seen and at least partially recognized by Time Machine. In this scenario, Support has it right.

      In either case, Apple has left its loyal customers in a pickle, we don’t know whether to zig or zag.

      Bad karma.

    11. Dana Sutton says:

      By experimentation I’ve figured out a recipe for getting Time Machine to work with a shared network server (I did this using AirPort Express, which I use as a router for a hard-wired ethernet LAN, I have no idea whether it works with wireless connectivity, but I don’t see any reason why it wouldn’t). You can’t directly create a sparse bundle from a Mac to a networked server with Time Machine, it simply chugs a while and then puts up a message telling you it can’t be done. Nor can you create a sparse bundle, which you need for a server, using a hard disk attached to your Mac by USB or Firewire, it will create files rather than a sparse bundle. But you can create a bundle by backing up to a hard disk attached to another Mac on your network, and once you’ve created it you can copy it to your server (you need administrator privilege to do this copying, you’ll be asked for a password), and after you’ve done that Time Machine will see the bundle parked on your server and back up to it. You can do this for multiple networked Macs and then use your server as a shared backup device for them all. NOTE: Although I have discovered this is possible, I have no idea how stable or reliable this setup is, SO TRY IT AT YOUR OWN RISK AND DON’T BLAME ME IF THINGS SOONER OR LATER GO WRONG FOR YOU!!!!

    12. I wonder if Apple has held Flash back on the iPhone till after Apple’s SDK is in place with a bunch of games ready to go?

    13. I wonder if Apple has held Flash back on the iPhone till after Apple’s SDK is in place with a bunch of games ready to go?

      Only the inscrutable Mr. Jobs knows for sure. 😀

      Peace,
      Gene

    14. Constable Odo says:

      This is the way Apple operates. Get over it. Apple is notorious for keeping one department from knowing what another department is doing. I’d heard so many reasons as to why Airport Disks weren’t supposed to work well with Time Machine. Yet I’d heard that Apple was still in the process of making it work. If you’ve got money to burn, don’t bother to wait. I’m sure those that bought Time Capsules are very happy with them. Maybe they passed their Airport Extreme Basestations and added USB Airport Disks to friends and relatives. I suppose anything can be turned into a conspiracy theory. If that was the case, then why did Apple even bother to make Time Machine work with an Airport Disk. They could have just given up on making it compatible. Either way, Apple users would have been upset. It’s a no win situation for Apple. The secrecy that keeps Apple ahead of other manufacturers has some drawbacks to loyal Mac users. I guess that’s just a trade-off and can’t be helped.

      I’ve got an Airport Extreme Base Station N and a USB Airport Disk. They’re OK for some small files, but I would never want to back up anything over a couple of GBs. I sometimes watch my Japanese dramas using Airport Disks and they are so slow to copy to from my server disks. I do this so I don’t need to keep my server running all the time. I only need to keep my Airport Extreme and Airport Disk fired up.

      And as for the iPhone. Right now sales and development is going rather slowly, but once the iPhone Pro (the iChat, dual camera, 3G version) and iPhone 2.0 firmware with SDK apps get announced in late June or July it’s just going to dominate the mobile smartphone industry as never seen before. Apple will blow past the 10 million unit mark easy.

    15. Apropos of nothing, my 1TB Time Capsule is due here on Friday, so I’ll have a review of it shortly.

      Peace,
      Gene

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