Should Mac Troubleshooting Sites Put Up a Warning Notice?

September 17th, 2008

Almost every time Apple releases a system update, I get calls and emails wondering if they’re safe to install. Why the paranoia? Well, perhaps some of them read an article at one or more of the sites that handle Mac troubleshooting issues, detailing, sometimes with lurid prose, various horror stories, and they’re understandably concerned.

Now at one time, I was a big booster of such places, and I regarded them as credible sources for information about problems with Apple’s hardware and software. Now I’m not so sure.

Take MacFixIt, for example, which I’ll name since it used to be the most prestigious watering hole for well-researched troubleshooting information about Apple gear. Indeed, it was founded by Ted Landau, who became well-known to loyal Mac users because of his large, almost encyclopedia-sized books on how to make your Mac sing and dance.

A few years ago, Ted sold MacFixIt to TechTracker, the company behind, a well-known source for Mac and Windows software downloads. So far so good.

But things took a turn for the worse when that venerable tech news site, CNET, acquired TechTracker. Now CNET has not always treated Macs kindly, or even accurately. I worked for them over a period of a couple of years, and fought mightily to make sure that feature articles and reviews contained facts and responsible conclusions.

On one occasion, an editor, best unnamed, added material that I had never approved, or even seen, in order to add to the word count. Now, I wasn’t compensated for the additional wordage, though that didn’t matter so much. Alas, she got some key facts wrong, and, when corrected, refused to update the article that appeared under my byline.

Indeed, it appears they took the same approach with MacFixIt. Instead of vetting reports of problems with Apple’s stuff, they would take emails and message board posts that contained problem reports and publish them, apparently without confirming whether the issues truly existed, or whether the alleged solutions truly worked as presented.

Even though CBS has acquired CNET, it doesn’t look as if they’ve done anything to add any editorial responsibility to this enterprise. In reviewing the Mac OS 10.5.5 update, for example, they refer to “some users” or “several users” allegedly encountering troubles of one sort or another after installation. However, only one or two people are ever actually quoted, so you have to take the existence of other reports on faith.

Out of perhaps hundreds of thousands of people around the world who have installed this update since it was released, this seems a pitifully small number from which to assess a trend.

Worse, there’s no indication that MacFixIt’s editors have actually made any effort to work with these “users” to guide them towards solutions to their problems or even to determine if the problems are genuine or the result of a heavily-used and abused Mac.

No, I am not about to suggest that MacFixIt is making this stuff up. I will grant that all of this material exists and is accurately quoted. I’m questioning their editorial judgment.

More to the point, I’m not saying that every single update from Apple is perfect. That is certainly not the case, and quite often in the software business, the process of fixing one bug may deliver others in its place. It’s a very delicate balancing act.

While some wonder whether Apple is really testing their products before release, it’s clear that they do. However, with so many possible system configurations out there in the real world, there is no way to test every little thing and guarantee perfection. Mistakes can happen, and sometimes big ones. Take that infamous Finder bug that could cause data loss or corruption when you moved (rather than copied) a file to another drive or network share after you upgraded to the original Leopard release, 10.5.

Sure, Apple fixed that issue and others in the 10.5.1 update. But you may wonder how they missed it in the first place, and I do agree that Apple probably didn’t bake Leopard in the development ovens long enough before it was released. As usual, there were serious marketing reasons to have it out by the end of October of last year.

But since that Finder bug didn’t occur each and every time, it may well be that Apple never duplicated the specific combination of circumstances to reproduce the problem consistently. It may have happened so rarely, the bug got a very low priority. Perhaps they did overlook something in the testing process to rush Leopard out the door.

Sure, there are lots of possibilities, and I wouldn’t presume to know what’s actually going on behind the closed doors at Apple. Even if you assume they are making their best efforts to deliver reliable products, humans make mistakes. Ask Microsoft.

My concerns lie with MacFixIt and other sites that are turning themselves into the supermarket tabloids of the Internet. Instead of providing Mac users with reliable news and carefully-tested solutions to their problems, they simply magnify the exceptions and turn them into the rules.

Indeed, I know that people will encounter genuine, repeatable troubles on their Macs even if they keep them in pristine condition, with as little third-party stuff as possible. I wish there was a responsible online resource to help guide them towards a solution. Perhaps Ric Ford’s MacInTouch is a possibility, though its reports tend to be presented intact, without much editorial intervention.

For now, there’s Apple’s support boards and, if the worst happens to you, their own technical support people.

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5 Responses to “Should Mac Troubleshooting Sites Put Up a Warning Notice?”

  1. Bill Garrett says:

    Back to the topic, MacFixit bills itself as a one-stop shop for answers, but they’ve been criticized before for the very same issues you mentioned, Gene. The premise of a site like theirs is great, but I wish there were one that was “done right”. If you learn of one, let us know!

  2. Adam says:

    Again, the comment I made yesterday about language changing is an improvement. I hope that it signifies more improvement to come, but as Macfixit is no longer run by a dedicated aficionado, I have my doubts to say the least.

    Having said that, many of the fixes they publish do, in fact, work. If I am experiencing a problem I don’t know how to fix, I do search their site for a solution. I then consider the likelihood of it working and may try it out. I did this as a Mac Genius and had many very pleased customers as a result. What I do not do anymore is follow the front page as a source of “now appearing” bug reports as I used to do.

    Now I am back in software QA. The introduction of new bugs when fixing existing bugs is higher than you may think, especially when you don’t control the environment (in this case every single Mac in use) that the fix will be applied to. Because of this, the “Apple can’t know/test every configuration” point is not only valid, it is critical to understand, especially if you intend to modify your system. I am a big fan of TinkerTool, Onyx, FruitMenu, WindowShade, Quicksilver, and various terminal hacks. I understand, though, that every time I use one of these hacks, I introduce more risk of my system acting/reacting badly. The first thing I do before a major OS upgrade (10.4 to 10.5 comes to mind) is undo all of these things.

    In the case of the Tiger to Leopard upgrade I was not certain that I could remember all of the hacks I had applied since so many of them became “natural” enough over time that I viewed them as OS features. In that instance I cloned the drive to an external hard drive, did an “Erase and Install” of Leopard, and then used the Migration Assistant to bring my Users and Apps (but not the System Library) over to the new environment. It worked like a charm. I was attempting to avoid the APE system manager flaw (not an OS 10.5 bug as reported by Macfixit) but since I update my software regularly I would likely have not been effected. None of the features that APE enabled would have worked (I’m still waiting for some to come out of beta) but my system would likely have been usable.

    As I said, I am a former Mac Genius with training from Apple (not perfect training but training) and a former and current software QA professional. I understand all of these things. Most of the Mac using populace does not. Unfortunately these are also the people most likely to put blind faith in sites like Macfixit to bail them out.

    My biggest concern, though, is that Apple doesn’t monitor the discussion boards on their support site very well. I see more dangerous procedures posted by well intentioned Mac users there than anywhere else. Because you get to them buy going to they look like fine, vetted, and even official fixes. They are not. Many of them are great, but not all by far. The fact that Apple doesn’t have enough moderator staff (very expensive) to vet these comments is even more dangerous. Yes, they point out that these discussions are not Apple sanctioned, but it’s “fine print” to most people. When you are desperate for a solution you are no more likely to read that warning than you are to read a EULA. That’s dangerous.

    My $.02


  3. gopher says:

    Invariably, an update will trigger a “Mac OS X 10.x.x has killed my first born” response on Apple Discussions the day of release. As the evidence mounts, someone has not followed these steps to the letter:

    Unfortunately until Apple Discussions is able to moderate out all the threadjacks, and new posters who can’t post a new topic, similar problems that have different causes will always mask the severity or lack thereof of any problems which surface. Big long threads develop as stubborn users refuse to believe anything other than the update could be to blame. Occasionally a smart user listens to the Level 4 people, and starts providing enough detail to find out was it a third party software, hardware, RAM, or some logicboard issue that was to blame. Unfortunately the Mac press avoids those shorter threads and looks for long threads, not realizing the vast majority of them are rants, and/or users who resubscribe as a different user to make the extent of the problem look worse. Even with the vast numbers of posts, not even 1/10th of one percent of the updaters even post there. And an even smaller percentage of the people who upgrade with success post there of the percent of people who do post there, since it is a troubleshooting forum.

    Too bad it isn’t mandatory for success stories to post themselves, to offer a ballanced point of view saying that success is far more likely than failure.

  4. wtfk says:

    At least Macintouch makes it obvious that they simply relay all the comments they receive, so you know to take the contributions with a grain of salt. I have no problem with that. They also don’t charge subscription fees for essentially running a list server.

  5. Richard Dalziel-Sharpe says:

    After many years of relying on MacFixit for help, I abandoned it when Ted sold it to VersionTracker, so have not been aware of the changes. I now rely on four main sources.
    MacSurfer for a great overview of mac news and help.
    MacIntouch for reasonably intelligent dialogue on mac issues, with reader feedback generally useful.
    Apple forums for the next level of help, but there is a great variation on actual help and a lot of useless whinging which is of no help at all except for the whinger.
    Applecare, which I have for all of our Macs for when things go really nasty.

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