Apple and the Lost Data Syndrome

October 14th, 2009

Looking at the recent problems with the T-Mobile Sidekick smartphone and Microsoft’s Danger affiliate, it’s easy to forget that not all potential data loss problems can be blamed on the Dark Side of the computing universe. You see, Apple has had problems to contend with as well.

Consider a certain Mac OS X upgrade, where the partition map of some FireWire 800 drives became corrupted. To its credit, Apple rushed out its own update, and drive makers promptly issued firmware revisions. Indeed, I was actually bitten by this bug, which impacted Panther, or 10.3. I was selling an old Mac to a customer, and was backing up some of my old files before surrendering the computer to its new owner. That’s when it happened, and it was embarrassing, since that customer was witness to the chaos.

Yes, he understood the problem wasn’t one that impacted the computer, so that was that.

However, you had to wonder how Apple, which had heavily promoted FireWire 800 as an interface port, allowed that bug to surface in Panther. How could they not notice during the testing process?

More recently, a file system bug in the original Leopard release had the potential of damaging or destroying files moved, rather than copied, to another drive or network share. A rapid-fire 10.5.1 fix took care of that, but this wasn’t the end of the data loss syndrome, nor the beginning. In fact, some suggested that similar problems impacted earlier versions of Mac OS X, only it didn’t happen often enough for Apple to duplicate the defect and find a cause.

Now we have the insidious Guest account issue that affects Snow Leopard users. This is a serious one folks, and it apparently happens on occasion under a specific installation scenario. You create a Guest account under Leopard, and then perform a straight upgrade to Snow Leopard. Now if you open the Guest account, and then return to your regular user account, the latter’s data is zapped. Gone, history!

Apple’s support forums are crowded with similar tales of woe, but again it’s not something that appears to occur often enough for it to impact a large number of Mac users. That’s a good thing, but it also makes it doubly difficult for Apple to figure out what’s going wrong and devise a fix.

According to published reports, however, Apple is investigating the problem and they will hopefully have a fix in place soon, perhaps in time for the rumored 10.6.2 update.

In the meantime, there are fairly simple ways to get around the problem. An easy one is to just remove your Guest account before you upgrade to Snow Leopard, and create a new one when you actually need it after the installation is complete. In the meantime, take the added precaution of backing up your Users directory, so no possible variation of this data loss scenario can occur on your Mac. I’ve already weighed in about the need to have one or more regular backups of your stuff. You see, it’s not just this rare Mac OS X problem that might rear its ugly head. There are lots and lots of reasons why you might lose data, and I’m not going to repeat all the possibilities again.

Of course the larger issue is why these things aren’t caught by Apple during the testing cycle. Despite what one uninformed journalist for a major publication suggested recently, it’s not just specially selected journalists who get prerelease software from Apple. They keep an active developer program, known as ADC (for Apple Developer Connection), and anyone who subscribes to one of the paid packages is entitled to receive prerelease versions of the operating system, including both reference releases and maintenance updates.

In addition, Apple has a bug reporting system that allows the developers who test their products to report problems, and trace them from the original posting to testing and the final solution. But handling program bugs is more complicated than that. Any responsible software publisher is going to have to apply some sort of weighting system to a bug report. Something that has the potential of causing crashes or data loss will get first priority.

But that doesn’t guarantee a fix. You see, the conditions under which a bug manifests itself have to be duplicated in such a way that the problem can be reproduced over and over again, in a predictable fashion. Then there’s the natty issue of finding out what’s wrong and isolating a fix. Even if the fix is found and implemented, they have to make sure there are no side effects that might generate even worse problems.

As you might expect, all this testing and retesting takes time. Even a company as big as Apple can’t do it overnight, despite the pressures of rushing a maintenance update to market. Meantime, if you’ve already upgraded to Snow Leopard, just keep recent backups at hand, and avoid Guest accounts, new or old.

When all is said and done, it’s clear to me that Apple takes the Guest account syndrome extremely seriously. That doesn’t guarantee that a quick fix will come, but I doubt it’ll take long to resolve.

Update! And if anyone still cares, it appears that Microsoft may have recovered or most of the lost Sidekick data. That, however, doesn’t compensate for the cost for antidepressants and headache pills consumed by customers who suffered all this time.

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7 Responses to “Apple and the Lost Data Syndrome”

  1. Robert Pritchett says:

    Is this “bug” still an issue with 10.6.1?

  2. degrees_of_truth says:

    According to testing by at least one blogger, the Snow Leopard data deletion bug does not always occur when you follow the steps you describe with the Guest account. (I don’t intend to try it myself.) The Guest account circumstances are apparently necessary but not sufficient to duplicate the bug. So while it can be argued that releasing a product with any serious bug is a QA failure by definition, this doesn’t look like a head-slapper.

  3. Tom B says:

    Thank the great DARPA for the Internet! Though the web often makes problems seem, maybe, more widespread then they are, the web also alerts people on work arounds to PREVENT trouble.

  4. Joe Anonymous says:

    I think it comes down to reasonable testing.

    Apple has extensive testing going on via their developers and also other programs. Some bugs are rare enough that even with thousands of testers, they don’t appear (or they’re not reproducible enough to track down).

    The MS Sidekick bug (and the hotmail problems before that) seem to be different. In those cases, Microsoft simply insisted that they were going to move an entire operating system to another platform all at once. From basic principles, that’s a bad idea from the start. More importantly, they already had hardware in place with the old system. The inability to go back to the old system smacks of bad planning, as well as hubris.

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