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The Apple Hardware Report: Some Things Don’t “Just Work”!

It’s very easy to sell a Mac to the skeptic when things function normally, and to be frank, they usually do. Indeed, I’ve also done pretty well in making that occasional deal to sell my old hardware to a local buyer.

However, on a rare occasion things don’t always work predictably. Some years back, for example, I was in the midst of ridding myself of a Power Mac G4. The prospective purchaser was just about ready to take the cash out of his wallet when I began a final backup of some remaining files.

Unfortunately the deal was almost aborted, as it appeared that the external drive failed at that very moment. It turned out to be the result of an early-release Mac OS X bug that would cause directory damage on some FireWire drives. In the end the problem was resolved with a fast Apple update and a corresponding update to the drive firmware, but I had to make some fast excuses to preserve the sale.

Rather than go into details about a possible Mac OS bug, I said the drive had been flaky for a while, and don’t worry. The Power Mac, I said, was perfect, and after a long period of silence during which time he considered the matter, he finally completed the transaction.

But it was embarrassing nonetheless, and I vowed to be far more cautious in the future when engaging in an in-person sales process.

It’s also true that even some of the features in the latest Macs don’t always function, even when everything is working properly.

A major offender is Leopard’s screen sharing feature, dubbed Back to My Mac in one of its variants. Now in theory, it’s a tremendous tool, because it allows you to take over the screen of another Mac on a local network or across the Internet. For the latter, all you need is a MobileMe account to handle the interconnectivity at both ends. Of course, MobileMe, one hopes, isn’t suffering from one of its periodic outages when you attempt to share another Mac’s desktop.

When it works properly, the hookup process happens nearly as fast as standard file sharing. This can be a tremendous advantage if you want to help a friend or relative solve a problem, or just teach them how to do something interactively. It’s also a more advantageous file sharing technique, since you have virtually full control over the networked Mac. All this comes at no extra cost, beyond your MobileMe membership, without having to buy any special desktop sharing software, such as Apple’s Remote Desktop, which can get rather costly.

At least that’s the theory. But in practice it doesn’t always work so well. To be assured a reasonable chance of success, you should have a recent Apple AirPort Extreme router or a Time Capsule at both ends of the connection. That will ensure maximum compatibility. Now it’s also true that third-party routers are, to some degree, also supported, but don’t bet on certain success.

According to Apple, those other routers need to support something called UPnP (also known as Universal Plug and Play) technology. They even maintain an online list of routers that are supposedly compatible with Back to My Mac when properly configured. However, the setup may not be so simple, because some of those products require accessing Web-based configuration panels that are often poorly designed and badly explained in their documentation. You may be coping with lots of trial and error, or find yourself calling an outsourced support center that can barely understand English, let alone deal with the technical fineries of this sort of setup.

And that even assumes that the router maker has any interest in supporting Mac users.

To make matters worse, some ISPs provide proprietary DSL or cable modems with built-in routers, which are preconfigured by their technical people. They may not be willing — or able — to set things up so they support Back to My Mac.

Now there is also a screen sharing capability in iChat that allows you and your online contact to take control of each other’s Macs. This substitute may actually succeed where Back to My Mac fails, but it does, of course, require that there be someone at the other end of the connection to manage their part of the process.

So we have two variations of a wonderful feature that, in the real word, often fails to perform as promised. It almost makes you think of Windows, where some things aren’t as reliable as they could or should be.

Now perhaps Apple is guilty because of over-promising and under-delivering, although Back to My Mac isn’t something they advertise too heavily. They may also be the victims here, simply because so many routers are badly designed. Indeed, consumer electronics outlets used to complain they had more returns on routers than almost any other gadget.

But maybe — just maybe — Apple will find a better way to implement this and other broken features in Snow Leopard. It shouldn’t just be about more efficient plumbing.