OPINION

Apple’s Panther: Something Wicked This Way Comes

Since the unveiling of its Unix-based OS X operating system, Apple has been releasing “point upgrades” about once per year, charging $129 for each one — a pretty stiff fee for staying current. This in itself might not be so bad, except that in the process of speeding development through the pipeline to grab extra revenue, Apple seems to have lost the handle on quality control with its latest upgrade, 10.3, or Panther.

A quick read through Apple’s own online forums shows that, for a large number of Panther users, Apple’s Mail program is pretty much unusable; the new File Vault encryption system corrupts many users’ files; and the new font management utility, Font Book, causes problems with other programs, including Apple’s own Safari Web browser.

It should be kept in mind that for every user who complains, many more suffer in silence. In addition, the posts on Apple’s forums represent only the “constructive” ones; those that don’t meet Apple’s high standard of circuitous caviling, rather than outright complaining, are unceremoniously deleted by the company’s online “helpers.” On other forums, such as the Macworld and MacNN message boards, where complaints about Panther are not censored, the barbs are more pointed.

Shades of Internet Explorer

It appears that Apple developers — and I’m speaking specifically of Safari coders — are now deciding what is “best” for end users by coding for Web designers, rather than giving users a choice. Thus, in Panther it is (for now, at least) no longer possible to specify a browser-wide minimum font size in Safari’s preferences. The stated rationale is that there is a risk a given site may not look as its designer had intended. Never mind that many sites use fonts so small as to make them basically unreadable in some screen resolutions.

In another small but telling example of increasing arrogance on the part of Panther’s developers, if one chooses not to use Apple’s Mail as one’s primary e-mail program, it is now necessary to open Mail and modify its preferences to deselect it. Previously, this option was located with other system-wide options.

This change means that you may choose not to use Mail, but you had better not delete it from your system or you will lose the option to not use it — or to specify a different choice of software down the road. How very yesterday’s Microsoft.

Mining the Faithful

In cynically manipulating its customer base, Apple has a huge advantage over Microsoft. Much of Microsoft’s revenue derives from corporate customers, who are loath to leap at every upgrade Microsoft proffers, particularly in the case of Windows, and who harbor a certain degree of skepticism regarding Microsoft products in general.

Apple’s customer base, in contrast, consists primarily of individuals (though Apple may wish that were not the case). Many of those individuals are longtime Mac users who, over the years, have suffered the slings and arrows of the computing world and would defend all things Apple to the death.

These are the people who faithfully line up outside the doors of the Apple store the night new software is released. They attend every Macworld show, if not in person then via QuickTime recordings, to gaze upon Steve Jobs as he unveils yet another “fantastically great” bit of software or hardware. They are, in other words, the people Apple counts on to fork over $129 per year to keep their operating systems up to date. Microsoft should be so lucky.

Back to Basics

Of course, every major software release has its problems, which take time and effort on the part of both early adopters and the manufacturer to sort out. However, when problems arise in a major operating system, they most often involve the installation process, largely because of the difficulty of anticipating every user’s system configuration in advance. On the other hand, issues involving the most-used elements of an application, in this case Mail, usually are sorted out long before a program is released.

Lest anyone think that Apple’s most recent operating system problems are anything new, many Mac users will recall, some with a good deal of bitterness, Apple’s last update to its previous OS X release, Jaguar. That update corrupted so many users’ systems that it was pulled in less than a day and not reposted for more than a week. In a massive public relations fiasco at that time — just as now — Apple did not publicly acknowledge that a problem even existed.

Apple is on a roll, certainly. Its G5 has cracked the performance ranks of the top PCs, iTunes for Windows is by all accounts a smash, and Apple’s future looks brighter than it has in a very long while. But while the company speeds forward, it must not lose its focus on quality control or user loyalty. If it does, OS X could turn out to be nothing more than just another pretty face.


Note: The opinions expressed by columnists are their own and do not necessarily reflect the views of the E-Commerce Times, its management or parent company ECT News Network, Inc.


21 Comments

  • While you have valid points to gripe about Mail, File Vault, or the M$ing of Apple, your facts are only based on these forum posts, which for the most part only refer to problems that these particular users are having. The number of posts complaining about them do *not* constitute a large number of Panther users. I’ve had absolutely zero issues with Mail, safari, or FontBook (I don’t use FileVault but the problem was addressed in a FREE incremental update), and do not post my lack of displeasure. If you were able to count the number of zero-prob users like myself, you will realize that a large number of Panther users find mail *usable.* You are in a position to post whatever you want to say and influence the lesser informed individuals who read your article, so I would not be so narrow-minded with this topic. With all due respect, for you to base your facts on a small percentage of users looking for answers on a forum devoted primarily for issues is, in my opinion, journalistically irresponsible. i’m sure you’ve succeeded in misleading some of your readers with your facts in this article.

    • I have to agree with MacDuff about preferring Apple’s failings to Microsoft’s. However, the failings cited in the article were but examples of what seems to be a more serious trend: Apple’s increasing tendency to behave, in some ways, like Microsoft. Thus, the examples of locking users into its programs, like Mail, and of releasing half-baked upgrades.

      • No kidding! This is all you can find to complain about in an operating system that is only a few years old, still on its .3 release!? Where do I buy my copy?

        • Lies about Mail?I suggest you go to Apple’s discussion site and read what’s there.
          You are precisely who Apple depends upon to foist whatever it wants on its users.

          • … Apple’s own online forums [show] that, for a large number of Panther users, Apple’s Mail program is pretty much unusable…
            Guess this depends on your characterizations of "a large number" and "pretty much unusable." I wouldn’t be surprised to hear that several dozen users are having trouble with Mail, but I think most people would read the above as a "large fraction — maybe a majority — can’t get it to work." That can’t possibly be so.
            Perhaps since you’re so big on QC, you could clarify your meaning so that people don’t think you’re sloppy or lying. While you’re at it, why not lay out a standard that you think is reasonable. Similarly to how medical types have to determine how many deaths are acceptable for a vaccine that prevents an uncommon disease, how much grief is too much in a world where Apple cannot possibly control all the variables? If you call for zero tolerance, I’d argue that you’re also, by demanding the impossible, damning Apple for any effort at progress whatsoever. "The Best is the enemy of the good." — Voltaire

          • It is interesting how you know that a bug fix is due out "very soon," since Apple is famously reluctant to discuss future releases. Perhaps that is simply what common sense dictates.
            And I wouldn’t be too self-congratulatory about the lack of viruses. If you were a hacker and you wanted to disrupt as many computers as possible, would you spend your time writing a virus for 2 1/2 percent of the world’s computers. or the other 95 percent (allowing for Linux)? I suggest that OS X simply isn’t a big enough target for the truly AM bitious hacker to go after.

          • Your (sarcastic) comment is correct. What the author should have said is that if you delete Mail, you will not be able to specify another mail program as the default since that preference setting is contained within Mail itself.

          • I’m not sure where FUD comes into this. There is no Fear, other than that of people whose files were corrupted by File Vault, or whose businesses (like mine) live and die on e-mail; there is no Uncertainty, other than not knowing if one’s POP accounts will work today; and there is no Doubt that Apple will, in a year’s time, be dipping into your pocket for another $129.

          • Assuming you’re correct, and I do not doubt that you are, then the situation is more dire than I thought. What you’re saying is that while Apple employees have time to read the posts and delete those they think overly critical, they do not have time to constructively reply to any posts. For that, they rely on unpaid "helpers." How very cost-effective.

          • No, Apple employees do not have time to read all the posts. That’s why they implemented the Helper program about two years ago. There are about 100 of us, worldwide, spread around the many topic forums. Our principal work is to help users with their problems. If a post or thread seems to be going bonkers, we notify the people we report to and they make final judgements about deletion or editing. Sometimes they accept our recommendations and sometimes not. Apple Discussions terms of use are not Machiavellian. No selling. No petitions. No speculation about future products. Generally civil discourse. Contrary to the article, many posts critical of Apple, if constructive and not just flames, remain in place until server overload demands generalized pruning. We help thousands of users solve their problems every day and know that there are millions of problem-free Mac users who don’t need us. We are justifiably proud of the work we do.

  • Greetings,
    What is blatantly obvious to me is that this article, from inception, was meant to be one-sided and blind to balance. Every piece of software has problems, some worse than others, but Apple’s OS and Mail applications are not AM ong those. This is obvious to anyone who works with a variety of applications every day, especially to those who support those platforms and applications. It does lead me to wonder what ecommercetimes allows to be posted under the image of informed commentary or even news.

  • The comment in this article stating that Apple Discussions Helpers delete posts is totally false. I AM a Helper there and the ability to alter or delete posts is way above our pay grade, which is zero. We are not Apple employees. I may be biased, but I think the deletion process in Apple Discussions is very carefully administered. It’s only when posters forget where they are and sound like they are in some of the other chat rooms posing as technical discussions do they get bleeped. And, once more for clarity, not by Helpers.

  • Phillip, the first thing that comes to mind when I read your article is FUD, FUD, FUD (okay, that’s three things).
    The discussion boards at Apple are for people that HAVE PROBLEMS! I submit that for every 1 that posts, there are hundreds that have no problem at all! (and the helpers are not the ones that delete posts).
    Using the Mail issue to link Apple to M$ tactics is just crazy. You have taken 0.5% of the picture and extrapolated to a totally false conclusion. You are just WAY off-base. People should question your ability to analyze such situations.
    Dude

  • The Panther OS improved performance by 20 per cent on my iBook 500. Tell me a cheaper way for that kind of boost. You mention that a lot of users suffer in silence. I would like to propose that most Mac users celebrate in silence, knowing that Apple, with all the faults of a corporate being, is still committed to its customers and tries to afford them the best user experience possible.

  • I just read your article and as i reader i trust i got the intended message, apple is missing the boat on QA. I’d like to offer some to you too.
    Yes apple has updated the OS each year w/a "point upgrade", but understand, it is not a simple service pack released yearly ala Microsoft. Understand, it’s a different naming convention. Each ".x" release has new features, improves on the existing ones, and moves the platform forward. If i can say for myself, Panther has improved leaps and bounds beyond previous MAC OS’s.
    I think it’s seriously debatable that mail is unusable. I have used mail without flaw since the upgrade, very stable, fast and it renders very well. In fact, my folks just switched and love the fact of how mail integrates so easily w/all the iapps. Mind you they were PC newbies to begin with and now are seasoned veterans on a 1ghz Emac.
    It should also be kept in mind for each 1 that complains about a computer problem, there may be 10 or more that have no issues whatsoever. 10 others that may be in a state of perpetual bliss. I myself being one. It’s kinda like visiting infiniti’s web site and seeing 30 people complaining about a g35 engine problem, but then the car wins JD Powers car of the year, because 30000 respondents rated the engine trouble free.
    As far as Apple censoring, would you allow f-bombs and other unprofessional diatribes to litter your public message boards? I have seen very critical and revealing posts on Apple’s boards that were well written and directed, and they were responded to in kind, even if the answer was "we are currently investigating the issue".
    It just seems your viewpoint is a bit skewed towards problems w/the OS. The OS on a whole has been lauded by some of the most ardent mac critics in the industry and they all seem to be saying the same thing, the OS is AM azing.
    Myself, i AM willing to pay $130/year to have a more productive, stable, secure OS. My 4 year old G4 feels like a new machine under 10.3 and yes, that is worth $130 to me.

  • "This change means that you may choose not to use Mail, but you had better not delete it from your system or you will lose the option to not use it — or to specify a different choice of software down the road"
    If you DELETE Mail, you WILL BE FORCED TO USE IT IN FUTURE. Yeah. Un-hunh.

  • Among my many friends and co-workers with Macs, I’ve actually seen none of the probems with Panther mentioned in this article. What I do hate about Panther is the arrogant and insidious way that Apple has manipulated the OS such that it forces me to not use Windows. I insist Apple do something about that before it descends into hell as a company.
    I also commend the author as he nobly defends those pitiful victims of tech-lust consumeritis who can’t help but spend their last $129 on an annual OS upgrade instead of buying food for their kids. Apple should immediately start a fund to help the starving children of Mac users.

  • I read your article, and there are some inaccuracies to point out. You make it sound as if the vast majority of Panther users have experienced system-threatening problems and then are gagged by Apple for complaining. This is simply not true. Most Panther users are very happy with the new OS. They consistently say it is faster and easier to use than Jaguar (10.2). There have been problems, such as Firewire drive data loss with certain chipsets and FileVault corrupting data. Apple addressed these problems in a week after release with 10.3.1. In addition, there is a major bug-fix (10.3.2) scheduled for release very soon that will solve, most if not all, of the remaining bugs.
    A very important point you failed to mention is that Apple’s Mac OS X, out of the box, is safe and secure from viruses and hackers. Microsoft, on the other hand, has taken quite a few years to come to the conclusion that user security is important. November was one of the first months in a while that there was no security patch issued by Microsoft. Many corporate users are beginning to appreciate the security features offered by Apple in computing total cost of ownership.

  • – Are you one of these Paul Thurrott, Rob Enderle Microsoft-paid FUDsters who spread lies for dollars?
    – The reason that they are "point updates" is that they are pretty much stuck with the 10 to the left of the decimal in order to stay coordinated with the X. In reality, Jaguar should have been 11.0 and Panther 11.5. [You should] realize that .5 upgrades haven’t been free for a long time.
    – Mail is better than ever. You are simply lying about its usability. If you prefer another product, that is fine, but your lies about Apple’s Mail are inexcusable.
    – Apple is generally VERY tolerant of what they allow on their discussion boards. I’ve seen many highly-critical threads remain there indefinitely. I’ve also seen a few get wiped out, but those have usually been eliminated because flame wars between users were breaking out.
    – Now that your ignorance of Apple has been exposed, maybe you’d better quickly cash your check from Gates, Ballmer and Co. and start cranking out your next article about how Linux causes Irritable Bowel Syndrome.

  • maybe I’m very lucky but I didn’t see even a single problem
    with panther (I installed panther at least on 3 Powerbooks)
    and none of them had troubles, sorry 🙂
    Mail, Safari, CodeWarrior, Photoshop, Java, XCode and many other applications are working as expected
    Note: usually I don’t install 3rd party system extensions
    that’s probably why

  • Tempest in a teapot.
    Apple can screw up once in a while, but I would take the occasional failing from them over the ongoing failures that Windows users choose to live with. The problems you cite — although serious — affected a small percentage of the user base. And, if I’ve seen one thing, Apple has proven very responsive to such issues in their OS.

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