Of Fixing Cars and Fixing Macs

January 1st, 2009

For most of you, a motor vehicle is an appliance. You put in the key in the slot, turn on the ignition, place it in gear and away you go. Or at least that happens most of the time — and please don’t remind me about the keyless ignition systems some cars sport nowadays.

When your car doesn’t start, you aren’t expected to open the hood, peek into the dark, dusty, oil-stained interior and try to figure out what’s causing the problem. Sure, I know some of you are Saturday mechanics, but most people don’t want to be bothered with such matters. You expect your car to just work, and if it doesn’t, you call your favorite serviceperson to sort things out.

Indeed, most of today’s cars are incredibly reliable, and that’s good. It’s also true that most of what they do is managed by sophisticated computer systems, and the first step at diagnosing a problem is to hook up a diagnostic panel, which will check the error codes to figure out what went wrong. Gone are the days when your trusty mechanic just listened for a few moments and knew exactly what he had to do to fix your car.

Almost sounds like a personal computer, right?

Well, of course, a personal computer is nowhere near as reliable as a car. And that’s not just on the PC side of the universe. Indeed, if you drove a car equipped with Mac OS X, don’t expect a smooth cross-country trip. Be grateful if you can make it crosstown before something goes wrong.

With most any 21st century motor vehicle sold in the U.S., you shouldn’t expect serious troubles to arise over the first year or two, let alone a single day. Sure, things do break, and you may have to make a few visits to the dealer for warranty repairs. There are also flat tires, which you can do nothing to prevent other than to avoid rough and gravely roads as much as you can, and definitely stay away from broken glass. But, on the whole, you don’t expect it to betray you very often. That only happens when a car is getting a little long in the tooth.

Sure, the Mac is supposed to be a computing appliance. Steve Jobs told us that 25 years ago when the original compact all-in-one debuted. Maybe his intentions were good, but the first time you saw system error message of some sort, you just knew that the news portended reliability issues.

At one time, you could hardly work on your Mac more than a few hours with a heavy-duty graphics or desktop publishing program before things went awry. If an application didn’t unexpectedly quit, the system would just freeze, and clicking the telltale Restart button within the error prompt seldom did a thing to fix anything.

After the requisite forced restart, you were back in action, hoping you saved most of the serious stuff before things went badly. You forgot to save frequently or activate an auto-backup feature for the rare programs that had one? That’s just too bad.

With a Unix-based operating system, today’s Mac is far more reliable. Applications still quit on occasion, though not nearly as often. When they do, you can often launch them again with only a short delay before getting back to work.

Oh, yes, don’t forget to save your document regularly. That situation still hasn’t changed, and few applications have added an autosave routine. Now why is that?

On a rare occasion, you will still be forced to restart your Mac, though it takes a really serious programming defect or other untoward event to require such a thing. Now I realize some of you will restart your Mac every so often anyway, just to clear out the cobwebs. Sometimes it does a world of good, and things run great once again. Sometimes it doesn’t do anything.

You can place me in the center of these two extremes. If I’m not installing software that requires the restart, I’ll definitely perform that task every couple of weeks or so, and take a brief break while the process is engaged. For the rest of the time, when I’m not using them, my desktop and portable Macs relax in Sleep mode.

Yes, I know that Sleep mode sometimes delivers its own instances of irritability. The Mac doesn’t return to normal operation, and you’re forced to restart. You’d think that, after all these years, Apple still can’t deliver that feature in a foolproof fashion.

Oh well, that’s what system updates are for.

Now even though your motor vehicle has software-driven functions, updates are few and far between. Usually they are described in some obscure service bulletin that is designed to address situations where the engine stops cold while you’re blocked in a traffic jam, just at the point where traffic begins to lighten up and you’re expected to accelerate to normal cruising speed. But that doesn’t happen too often; at least not to me.

With a Mac, any Mac, it doesn’t just work. It will never just work. Maybe Snow Leopard will help somewhat, but don’t expect miracles. I have even fewer expectations for Windows 7.

| Print This Article Print This Article

11 Responses to “Of Fixing Cars and Fixing Macs”

  1. Andrew says:

    Interesting points.

    As for software on cars being more reliable, that isn’t always the case. My brother used to have a Buick Rendezvous with its power rear door and stereo system both controlled by the car’s computer. They never both worked. If the dealer fixed the stereo, the door would invariably stop functioning, and when the door was fixed they enjoyed a nice quiet ride, because the stereo was dead.

  2. If that was a new car, I would have contacted GM’s regional office and demanded a replacement vehicle or a fix that worked.


  3. Andrew says:

    He got GM to buy it back under the lemon law.

  4. Andrew wrote:

    He got GM to buy it back under the lemon law.

    OK then this was clearly an exception rather than the rule. Thanks for the clarification.


  5. Keyword says:

    Cars don’t have to deal with users adding hardware or software. If your Mac was as locked down as a car (i.e. essentially no user changes allowed) it probably would “just work”.

    But, the minute you load an app all bets are off.

  6. Still waiting for the flying car.

  7. DaveD says:

    Keyword on January 2nd, 2009 at 9:08 AM brought up a great point.

    Back in the bad classic Mac OS days, the vanilla install was very stable as long as it remains in a pristine state. Because I like to have “it” my way, a barge load of extensions got installed. One had to move the extensions around to get back to a “stable” situation with good old “Conflict Catcher” software.

    Satisfaction is running a modified classic Mac OS is when the Mac doesn’t freeze or crash during the day. With Mac OS X, a restart under this situation becomes more of a rare action. We all know that we are not there yet.

    I see the equating Macs to cars a bit differently. Cars are mostly hardware with software playing a large role. The function of a car is to take you from point a to b and back. Macs (and PCs) are mostly about software with hardware playing a large role. The ability to perform a number of similar or different items with ease and less time. While the purchase price of Macs have come done in the last 25 years, we cannot say the same for cars.

  8. Winsor says:

    Cars are not the appliances you seem to think they are. Consumer Reports has made a business out of publishing the results of reliability polls of their subscribers. Some makes are disasters. And electronics is one of the big issues of reliability. Even cars that don’t regularly need their “black boxes” to be replaced, like a popular German make, need to have their systems rebooted from time to time. The cure for driving anomalies like you describe are almost always cured by disconnecting the battery for a while, reconnecting it and resetting the clock and radio stations. I imagine that there is a more sophisticated way to do that when hooked up to the current diagnostic machines. It is not your imagination that they drive better after a service.

    I think maybe the difference in perception between cars and computers is that most people pay someone else for regular service and we are shade tree mechanics for our computers. I doubt anyone would be happy taking his computer in every six months for a $100 tuneup and a $600 major service every three years even if there was someone skilled enough to do that.

    From someone who buys neither his computer nor his car for how boring it is, but how fun it is to be with.

  9. @ Winsor: Put the emphasis on “some.” To be specific, the “popular German” make happens to be Mercedes-Benz, and I think they recognize there were issues they have to confront.

    In terms of tuneups and other scheduled maintenance for cars: There are specific wear and tear items on motor vehicles that, along with regular oil changes, must be performed to maintain top efficiency. The only real wear and tear item on a personal computer is the hard drive, and I suppose you could be safe and replace that every two or three years, assuming it doesn’t break first.


  10. DaveD says:

    Very fortunate to never experience a hard drive failure (knock on wood) for I have read on sites about too many quick failures in the last few years. They don’t make them like they used to. With Seagate moving their “consumer” hard drive warranty down to three years, maybe we might need to have that “scheduled” maintenance as Mr. Gene Steinberg has commented.

  11. Richard Dalziel-Sharpe says:

    I spend about $1500.00 Australian on service for my car, which I bought used for $45k Australian six years ago. It costs me about $2500.00 a year in fuel and other costs to run. At present I have had an ongoing computer related problem with my car for the last four months. Sometimes it goes and sometimes it won’t.
    I have a refurb MacPro which I bought in 2006. Running costs have been the electricity, can’t work that out as its not on a seperate meter, and a new logic board, replaced for nothing by Apple. I have purchased Leopard and several other software updates, but all of these were of my choice, not by neccessity. If I had run my car for the same length of time without servicing it would be undriveable now and worthless. My Mac has most likely depreciated by a percentage amount far less than the car over the same period of time and if anything is actually performing better now than when I got it. The same cannot be said of my car.
    My car is not a lemon, neither is my Mac, but I do not think there is a valid comparison between a mainly mechanical device and a mainly electronic one. I love using bothof them.

Leave Your Comment