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On The Flip Side
by Michael Munger




The Deplorable State Of Mac Software
June 13th, 2000

We bought Macintosh computers because we had a certain sense of superiority over the other guys. We believed that our operating system was superior for its features and stability. We wanted superior hardware so that those machines could last longer and be faster. Then, the developers serving the platform would come up with better solutions than the other guys would.

I have the impression that we are now missing two out of those three things. I do not base this impression only on my computer's setup, but on almost a year of monitoring all types of forums, newsgroups, mailing lists, etc. You name it. I was around and reading the posts.

There is one thing that I have consistently in my explorations: the condition of Mac software is as pathetic as it could be. Here is why.

Disclaimer: I will use my setup as an example, but remember that I would not write this if I did not hear the same from other people around the Internet. When you read the problems I experienced, you should know that I used all the troubleshooting techniques I knew, deleted preferences hundreds of times, did reinstalls, Mac OS clean installs, disk reformats, hardware verifications with TechTool Pro, etc. etc. etc. It is not like I, and other people who reported similar problems on the Net, did not know how to solve problems on a Mac.

Mac OS 9

System 7.5 was probably the crappiest release of the Mac OS, but its runner up, Mac OS 9, is active on millions of setups worldwide.

This thing is extremely intolerant with third-party extensions and software. It is trouble free when you install a fresh copy, but when you add third party components, it starts crashing. Nor can you keep many applications active at the same time.

Its memory is far from modern, and far from protected. This is a major pain in the butt to developers and users. Whenever an application crashes, it can take down the whole system, forcing you to restart at the first inkling of difficulty.

I heard that the only setups that work flawlessly are those where people allocate spectacular amounts of RAM to all their software. That is cute, and I will probably observe this rule when I get a G4 - I know, I told you guys about it too often - with four RAM slots, but what about the people who cannot afford RAM or a computer that can hold colossal amounts of memory? Is a stable Mac a luxury now?

MS Outlook Express vs. Internet Explorer

Have you ever tried using Outlook Express and Internet Explorer at the same time? I did... painfully. One of the two will crash - most of the time, it is IE - or the whole system will freeze. I hang around the public forums related to the two products and a countless number of people asked how they could solve the problem, but never received a definite answer.

Jimmy Grewal, Program Manager for Internet Explorer 5, said this in a newsgroup post:

This is usually due to extensions conflict with some other third-party extensions you have installed. I would recommend turning off all of your third party extensions/control panels and seeing if the problems with IE/OE are resolved. Then, turn them on one by one and see which one is causing the problems you are experiencing.

I thought that quality software did not produce conflicts and that developers could isolate exceptional problems then release fixes.

I think that you should read another message that Mr. Grewal posted in newsgroups when discussing Explorer's use of RAM:

What you are seeing is our attempts to compensate for the lack of a modern memory management system in MacOS 8/9.  We use a normal system call to ask for unused system heap when the app needs more memory.

If you see that IE is using 14.6MB while viewing a particular page, that doesn't mean that all of that memory is required for that page.  That number slowly grows as we load more and more pages and need more memory to load certain elements...the only way for us to return memory is to quit the application at which point that memory is then available to other programs of the MacOS.  If we didn't do it that way, you'd have to set the application partition to the largest possible number the app would ever need...not the ideal scenario for casual web surfers on 32MB machines.

We can stop doing all this stuff under MacOS X and I can't wait.

Lack of modern a memory management system under the current Mac OS? He is right on the money! This may be the cause of most of the stability problems on the platform.

Adobe software

Could anyone tell me why Adobe applications (Photoshop, ImageReady, GoLive) often crash on me when starting up and why troubleshooting, updates or reinstalls appear to be vain?

StuffIt Deluxe

Speaking of problems with software, why does the True Finder Integration give headaches to its users a few weeks after installing it? Turning it off or disabling the StuffIt Browser seems to eliminate the conflict. Again, I thought that quality software actually worked, especially when you paid for it since free stuff comes with a "use it at your own risk" warning.

More stability problems

  • The Internet Preferences corrupt easily under Mac OS 9.
  • The Finder itself corrupts often on many Macs. For example, I have had to install a fresh copy every two or three weeks since I have Mac OS 9.
  • Did anybody have problems with the AOL Instant Messenger lately? Another Mac Observer staff member told me that he experienced the same crashes than me with this product.
  • Look at Version Tracker and count the number of updates tagged with "Mac OS 9 fix". I thought that quality code could live almost forever, a bit like Word 5.1 did.

Velocity Engine software

Where is the updated software to use with a G4? So far, Photoshop seems to be the only worthwhile title to take advantage of the new processing technology from Motorola. I am still looking for a big list of updates... in vain.

Poor technical support

When you buy software, technical support is one of the features you should take advantage of. Not only is it hard to reach technical support lines for many products, but the people you reach will barely be able to help you. Most of the time, you know more than they do about their software. In addition, one of their favorite explanations is to tell you to run their software on a Mac without third-party extensions or other applications active.

To them, I shall reply:

Using a Mac without third-party extensions or software defeats the whole purpose of buying a computer to use it! We actually have to install third-party products to do something with our Macs. What do we own, the most elegant shitboxes in the world made to be unusable decorations or superior computers? Are we a bunch of crash test dummies without air bags?

Again, I remind you that I am not the only person stuck with an unstable Mac. I could tell you about the experiences of others who noticed the stability issues described earlier, and plenty of reports around the Web tell me that I am not alone.

Just look at MacFixIt, which is busier than ever, to see how bad Mac software is nowadays. Look at their Aladdin Systems forum to find out about the True Finder Integration problems as an example.

You might tell me that your setup is trouble free, but that does not convince me nor all the other people who face problems whenever they use third-party software and extensions on their Macs.

The Macintosh should be the most stable platform after Unix. It is not. Ask my colleague Kyle D'Addario how he cannot wait for Mac OS X because he wants stability...

The Mac OS was so darn stable when versions 8.1 and 8.5 came out. My computer misses the days when it could run for a week without a single crash.

Your comments are welcomed.

Michael Munger is a French Canadian living in Montreal. He discovered the Mac in 1994 while studying journalism, the profession he loves and practices. He also studied history and communications. In addition to his work at The Mac Observer, he authors the iBasics tutorial column at Low End Mac, and cofounded MacSoldiers in 1998.

You can find more about him at his personal Web site.

You are welcome to send me your comments or you can post them below.

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