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Simple Advice for Apple

Entry 2009, on 2019-10-31 at 17:32:16 (Rating 2, Computers)

I've got to be honest with you: sometimes I'm not proud to say that I am a computer consultant and programmer. Why? Because so many of the products and services which people use and are created by IT geeks (my informal generic term for several different specialties in information technology) aren't that great, and could easily be made better with the simple application of a bit of common sense.

To be fair to my colleagues, there are often good reasons - some of which might not be obvious - for some piece of computer technology not working as well as it should, but there are also a lot of what I suspect are really bad reasons for things not being optimal (such as policies enforced in large organisations, taking shortcuts to reduce costs, and being more focussed on making money than making good products).

Generally my blog posts are triggered by some experience in the real world which gets me thinking about a particular subject, and when I start down that path I often feel the need to share my thoughts in a post. So what has started this one?

Well, several things actually, but most immediately and annoyingly, Apple's failure to adequately warn users about the consequences of their actions, specifically in this case involving installing operating system updates.

Recently I have had to rescue several users who have upgraded to Apple's latest operating system, macOS 10.15 Catalina. A great thing about Apple is that all users get all the new systems for free indefinitely. In contrast, Microsoft charges users for new major releases of their OS. Apple can avoid this because only people who have bought Apple hardware can use Apple operating systems, so users have already bought expensive hardware which could be thought of as subsidising the development of new systems. In contrast, most computers running Windows aren't made by Microsoft.

Getting new systems for free as they are released is good in many ways, because computers are a relatively new consumer product and their possible uses in the real world change quite quickly. So new system updates can give the user access to these new features, and getting those extra capabilities for free is good. The operating system producers - and there are really only a few systems to worry about: macOS, iOS (and variants), Windows, Linux, and Android - are constantly improving their technology, often by eliminating poorly designed features and bugs from the past.

Again, this is good, but it also creates significant possibilities for incompatibilities between older applications a user might have and the latest system they might have been tempted to install. Additionally, OS producers don't want to support a large number of older versions, so they try really hard to get users to update as soon as they can, and this is often sooner than they should!

Specifically in Catalina, Apple have eliminated support for 32 bit applications. You don't need to worry too much about what that means. I'll just say that Mac hardware has been designed around a 64 bit architecture for many years now, and there is a significant overhead in supporting older programs, which might have originated back in the day before 64 bit hardware was common.

One way to think of an operating system is as a series of functions which programs can use to get things done. So instead of every software developer having to write code to read and write to disks formatted with Apple's file system, for example, Apple can provide libraries of functions to do those operations. This makes writing programs easier and it forces programs to interact with the hardware "correctly". In the example above, Apple could change the file system and as long as they updated the libraries (which they would) the program writers (and users) don't have to care. At least, that's the theory in an ideal world!

There is always conflict between allowing old programs to run, and keeping the system clean, simple, and reliable. The more old stuff the OS supports, the more possibilities there are for bugs, slowness, and security issues. Apple have always been "enthusiastic" about dropping old stuff early and forcing updates, where Microsoft have generally been better at continuing to support old stuff - at the expense of reliability, speed, and ease of use, unfortunately.

Both approaches - trying to move ahead and leave old stuff behind, and trying to maintain the usability of old stuff - have good and bad points, and I'm not judging here: I'm just saying that those two approaches exist.

Apple have a feedback page where anyone can leave bug reports, suggestions on improving products, and ideas for new features. I have used it several times, and left a comment once which applies to the issue I have been describing. I said: when the user is about to install a major update, and not just a minor (but possibly important) security update or bug fix, why not give them an extra warning by showing a message like "You are about to install a major system update. This might cause compatibility issues with applications you already use. If you are unsure about this please talk to your IT support person about it before proceeding".

I even said, facetiously, that Apple could use my brilliant idea for free and I looked forward to seeing it in future system updates! Well, that was a few years back now, and two or three major updates later, I still don't see it being done. That's a bit unfortunate, because while I understand that Apple want to encourage as many people as they can to move to the newest possible system, I would prefer those people didn't move to a system that isn't possible, at least for them!

So that was my simple advice for Apple, which seems to have been ignored, and the lack of that easy to implement warning has caused a lot of frustration for some users. But I'm not really complaining, because fixing all the ensuing issues keeps people like me in work!

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