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Should Mac Troubleshooting Sites Put Up a Warning Notice?

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 VersionTracker.com, 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.