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Of Fixing Cars and Fixing Macs

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.