The Trials and Tribulations of an Apple Misunderstander

by Mark Wilson

Four years on, Rupert Jones, writing in The Guardian, is still using Mac OS X 10.4 (Tiger), which was released in the summer of 2005. He’s upset that Apple requires at least Mac OS X 10.5 in order to use things like iTunes 10.

I don’t know if Jones playing ignorant or is actually ignorant of many of the things he says in his article. He opens by saying that his MacBook is only four years old, and later complains “that this is all about ‘forcing’ us to buy new computers.” There’s a couple problems both with the words in this sentence and the sentiment behind this sentence.

I. It’s not just Apple that uses new technologies

How many pieces of software have you installed that require Mac OS X 10.5? That third-party software wasn’t written by Apple; it was written by someone else. Those developers don’t make more money if you buy a new computer or a new operating system, so what gives?

Turns out that successive releases of Mac OS X contain — wait for it — lots more features! Many of these features are things that the average (i.e., non-software-developer) consumer wouldn’t readily notice. I expect Jones didn’t realize that the Package Maker for 10.5 is improved over 10.4, or that 10.5 contained a new API called Core Animation that makes animations much easier than ever before to render, or that 10.6 contains two technologies — GrandCentral and OpenCL — that take advantage of modern processors and video cards that didn’t exist when Tiger was released in 2005.

These technologies make life easier for developers while boosting the quality of their applications. If developers had to write their own APIs for distributing processing takes among multiple processor cores, they probably wouldn’t do it do begin with. Apple realized that. And that’s why Apple wrote GrandCentral.

II. Apple’s philosophy is not Microsoft’s philosophy

Jones confuses the philosophies of Microsoft and Apple, apparently concluding that Apple’s is the exception, while Microsoft’s is the rule. The Microsoft rule, which you’ll find emblazoned on their family coat of arms, is this: Compatibility in primis. Microsoft keeps technology around for decades because developers have continued to port and re-port (and port again) the same software from 1979 to today. It’s especially irksome in the business environment: someone wrote an Excel plug-in back in 1993, and because it’s worked more or less the same since then, we have to put a complete halt to moving forward with new features and new technologies because of that one Excel plug-in. Or, we have to build backwards-compatibility into the operating system or program, even if that would make the program or operating system unstable (or cause security problems).

I think that about sums up Microsoft’s philosophy. This passage from Jones’ article is wonderful because the passage is blissfully unaware of what it’s really saying: “What adds insult to injury is that if I had a 10-year-old Windows PC, I wouldn’t be experiencing these problems.” This, of course, requires two questions: (1) what problems are you experiencing because you have a 10-year-old Windows PC? and (2) what things are you missing out on because your computer is 10 years old? A computer built in 2001 most likely cannot, for example, stream video content from the Internet. And if it can, it doesn’t do it very well. That’s because the processors just aren’t fast enough to decode the video. And why wouldn’t you use this computer from 2001 for your iTunes installation? Oh, right: it probably has a hard drive capacity of 10 GB, meaning that, after you install the operating system and other necessary applications, you’ve got about 7 or 8 GB left, at least two of which you should keep free for the swap file. I hope you have an iPod Nano.

Apple’s philosophy is different. It makes them money, but it also results in an improved customer experience (much like color TV was better than black-and-white, and I’m sure Magnavox made a bunch of money from it, but would you go back to black-and-white?). When was the last time you saw a floppy drive on a computer? Guess who’s responsible for that: it was Apple. The original iMac was the object of much scandal, for it lacked what, in 1998, was still essential for a computer: a floppy disk drive. Believe it or not, there are some children alive today who have never used a floppy disk, the 3 1/2” square of magnetic film contained in a plastic shell that held 1.44 megabytes of information. Some of you are reading this on laptops that don’t even have an optical drive. The world is moving on. (“I was told Apple’s operating system has simply had more revisions over the past four years than Windows,” Jones says dismissively, implying in the next sentence that such a statement may not be true. It’s completely true. In 2001, Microsoft released Windows XP and Apple released Mac OS X 10.0. Since then, Windows has gone through two more upgrades — Windows Vista and Windows 7 — while Apple is slated to release the seventh iteration of the Mac OS X operating system this summer. I gladly paid for Windows 7 and not for Vista, since the latter was pretty much a software abomination.)

III. Newer stuff gives you a better experience than old stuff

Whatever else Jobs may be (including “megalomaniacal,” a “control freak” and “belligerent”), prescience is one of his positive traits. When it was introduced in 1998, the iMac was state-of-the-art: no floppy drive, but something new and wacky called USB. No more restarting after connecting a peripheral like PS/2. No more dialing that SCSI switch to find an unused hardware address. No more proprietary connectors that necessitated the purchase of a new card to accommodate it. True “plug and play” in the sense that, once you plugged it in, the peripheral worked. We take that for granted now, but for how much longer would those technologies have existed if Jobs hadn’t made the unilateral decision to cut them out of the iMac? (I’ll give you a hint: HPs today — today — still have PS/2 ports, and some of them even ship with PS/2 keyboards and mice by default. That’s appalling.)

The iMac also had something really weird: a port next to the regular telephone port that was a little wider and had blinking lights on either side. Whatever would someone use that for? Back in 1998, when most of us still dialed up to AOL busy signals, Apple was building Ethernet ports into its computers right out of the factory. If you watch Hulu, or use the modern Internet, you’re probably using a DSL or cable connection, and that connection uses an Ethernet port. Ethernet made so-called Web 2.0 possible. It made YouTube possible (which, in turn, made Justin Beiber possible). The experience websites deliver today couldn’t be matched by dial-up for the simple reason that dial-up was just too slow. It could deliver text and graphics, but not “dynamic” content like Flash animations or videos that consist of several megabytes’ worth of data.

“But Flash videos aren’t that big!” My 56.6 kilobit-per-second modem took, at best, seven minutes to download one megabyte of data. In kilobytes per second, where “bytes” are a big B, we were talking 7 KB per second, a theoretical speed of 2.5 minutes to download one megabyte. Today, my connection speed is 22.04 megabits per second, or 2.75 MB per second. In the same 2.5 minutes it took to download one megabyte over dialup in 2001, I will have downloaded 412.5 megabytes today, almost an entire CD’s worth of information. (As a practical matter, my actual connection speed was hardly ever 7 KBps in 2001, just like my actual connection speed is hardly 2.75 MBps. But you see what I mean: technology has moved on in ten years.)

In 2006, Jobs announced that Apple was transitioning the entire product line from PowerPC processors, which Apple had used for decades, to Intel processors. Jobs’ reason? PowerPC just couldn’t deliver the processing performance, low power usage, and form factor Apple wanted. A scheme to make money? If you think so, go find a PowerPC G4 and try to do anything substantive on it. The super-fun, awesome content we take for granted today is made possible, in part, by advancing technology. Remember 1995, when games using full-motion video were a hot new commodity? I get better resolution now on my iPhone.

Apple does not “stand behind all of their products, even if they deem them ‘obsolete,’” to use the words of one of the angry forum-posters Jones quotes, because they’ve never believed in the “support the lowest-common-denominator” approach. That’s what Microsoft does. That’s not what Apple does.

IV. In conclusion

Jones is really making a big deal out of something very small. As he himself observes, an upgrade to Mac OS X 10.5 would cost £87 ($141), but it sounds like he received bad information: for $29 (£18), he could upgrade to Snow Leopard, which his four-year-old MacBook supports. This is not a case of buying an entirely new computer; it’s a case of doing some research and then spending $29 to upgrade your operating system, which will take an afternoon in addition to the money (and if Jones doesn’t have an external hard drive to which he can back up his stuff, he should get one as a matter of principle).

As one commenter observes, “This is not a new or noteworthy story. Furthermore, if I had kept up with OS/X upgrades as they were released rather than waiting well over a year, it would have cost me a lot less. So really, I brought the problem onto myself. The fix is easy  — keep up with the OS/X upgrades. Either that, or you can rage on and on and continue to write articles that are outdated before they are even published.”