My view: Some cracks in Apple’s aura of invincibility?
May 1, 2012
By Roger Thompson

Let me preface this whole article by saying that these are my own personal thoughts and opinions, and in no way reflect those of my employer.

I've always been a Windows guy, and finally bought a Mac about four years ago, partly to see what they were about, and partly to be able to provide tech support to my wife, who was already on her second Mac. She loved it, but kept asking how to do things, or where a document had been saved to, and I had no clue. Here's how it all went down...

Right at the same time, I had bought a new Windows laptop, and was trying to hook it into the corporate email system. I had Outlook 2007 on the laptop, which was running Windows 7 Professional, and was trying to connect to the current Exchange Server. All the latest Microsoft technology. Should have been a breeze, right? I had a list of instructions from our IT guys, but I must have missed a step, because Outlook could not find the server, no matter how hard I tried. I uninstalled, and reinstalled. I poured over the Internet, and found others with the same problem, but no good solutions. I cranked RegEdit, and scoured the registry, looking for possible issues, all to no avail.

This went on for a good three or four weeks, with me limping along on my old laptop, which talked happily to Exchange, but which would regrettably overheat at inconvenient times, and shut down, when my first Mac arrived.

I plugged it in, turned it on, soon got through the preliminaries, and found myself about to run Mac Mail for the first time. I forget the exact sequence, but it went something like this...

Mac Mail: "What sort of account do you want to add?"
Me: "Exchange"
Mac Mail: "What's your email address?"
Me: (types email address)
Mac Mail: "What's your password?"
Me: (types password)
Mac Mail "Ok, wait please"

It then went and found the server all by itself, and started downloading all my mail!

That was it! It just worked!

I came to find out that "It just works" was a common theme with Macs, and I started to think about why it might be so, when the very latest Windows software would not work at all for me, and this is what I decided.

It is not that Apple programmers were all supermen or women, and neither was it that Microsoft was populated by dullards. I've visited Microsoft lots of times, and have always been struck by the caliber of the Softies, right down to the receptionists. There are no dummies at Microsoft.

I think that what happened was that Microsoft's very strength became their weakness.

From the beginning, Microsoft encouraged and courted third-party development of software and hardware, from boards to full computers, while Apple kept their platform largely closed. What this meant was that, whatever you wanted or needed, you could find it for a Microsoft-supported platform, and you simply couldn't be sure you could for a Mac.

This very success, however, created problems for Microsoft, even when Windows was eventually released. Every few years, they'd release a new version of Windows, but they'd have to provide retroactive compatibility for zillions of computers running previous versions, not to mention a massively diverse hardware base.

That's hard, by anyone's measure.

Apple, on the other hand, has built pretty much all their own hardware, so it's easier to provide backward compatibility, and, after a while, just drops support for older hardware anyway. They effectively make people buy new gear every so many years. It's good for the bottom line, and if you can afford the price, it's good for consumers, too, because "Everything just works!"

However... Since I upgraded to Lion, I've noticed some uncharacteristic flaws in Apple software, and I'm starting to wonder if they, too, are becoming victims of their own success.

For example, iTunes no longer synchs my Recently Added playlist. It still creates it, and sure might be possible to synch, but I can't figure it out, and Google shows that lots of other users have the same problem.

That's admittedly minor, but it hardly fits with the philosophy of "It just works!"

A more serious example, is that the search function in Mac Mail is not working properly. I can manually go back and find a given email, so that I know it's there, and I know what it contains, but I can not find it with a search. I've tried re-building the mailboxes at least twice, to no avail. Again, this might be completely possible to correct, but I can't figure it out, and neither can lots of other users. For me, this is a significant pain, because I tend to use email as my database. "I know I saw an email about that once… let's see … the text in it was something like …", and then I search and find it. Not any more, and it is definitely not "It just works."

Probably the biggest pain, however, is that despite their marketing claims to the contrary, Pages on Mac does not seamlessly synch between Mac, iPhone and iPad. Between iPhone and iPad, yes, but not Mac. This is a huge issue when trying to create content, because while a touch screen and virtual keyboard is fine for minor text entry, it's really hard to precisely position the cursor. That means it's hard to select text for highlighting, or correcting, or whatever, without a mouse. Not only that, but with the iOS applications, you cannot control where you save your documents, something that's essential for creating multiple versions of things.

In trying to resolve some of these problems, I recently saw that Mountain Lion was going to solve at least the iCloud problem, so I thought "Beauty", and installed a pre-release of Mountain Lion, and found that, just as Windows has a "Blue Screen Of Death", Macs have a "Black Screen Of Death", and I could no longer even boot the laptop. Again, this was a pre-release, so this is no one's fault, as you "takes yer chances" with pre-release anything.

Fortunately, Time Machine still invokes the "It just works" mantra, and I was able to boot into a recovery console, and put the whole things back the way it was supposed to be.

Don't get me wrong. Mac products are still a joy to use, and mostly work perfectly, but this rash of problems, combined with the recent realization that Macs can get a virus, leads me to wonder if the very weight of their success will be too much of a load to bear.


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