View from the Classroom

Improving the User Experience?

- April 26, 2000

In a then-perplexing move, Apple Computer last fall ended its long-standing practice of allowing Macintosh related magazines and Macintosh Users Groups to distribute Mac OS Updates on CDs and the web. The official story had the catch phrase, "to preserve the Apple 'look and feel' our customers have come to expect." Users Groups were informed that their contracts to distribute Apple updates had been unilaterally modified prohibiting distribution of OS updates.

The "improvement" Apple was talking about first became apparent when QuickTime 3 appeared with its own automatic updater in the QuickTime folder. For a short while, the only way to get QuickTime was to download the installer from Apple's site and use it to get the software. A full installer was later posted (after a good bit of protest from Mac users). With System 9, the automatic Software Update control panel began its troubled existence. Both updaters reflected a good idea, but the Software Update control panel, and, to a lesser extent, the QuickTime updater have been slow in downloads and generally buggy. The Software Update control panel is notoriously unpredictable in whether it will find any needed files when there clearly are updates that should be identified.

After all of the hoopla last week of the second quarter profits and the stock split, Apple quietly released another update to the System 9 Software Update control panel on Friday. Apple's posted description of the revision is:

This revision to the Automatic Update software in Mac OS 9 provides enhancements to make software updates over the Internet faster and more efficient.

While Software Update 1.1.3 (572K) appears more effective and stable than previous versions, its sluggishness caused Bill Fox of Macs Only! to comment in a weekend posting:

I downloaded the update by the traditional method and installed the new extensions on one Mac before the control panel method on five other Macs even discovered that there was a new update.

Bill's results were consistent with my own experience. Ah, yes . . . improving the user experience.

What got me going on this jag was an attempt to update my private page, Free? From Apple? I noticed that the usual FTP software update sites at first didn't have an OS 9 update directory. When it was later added, the directory appeared to be empty, as was the OS 8.6 update directory. The 9.0.4 update (12.5 MB) appears to be available only through the Akamai servers. While the 8.6 update directory appears empty, the 8.6 update is still there, but hidden. You can still use it if you have the correct URL (35427K).

I really wasn't terribly upset, because I needed to remove all the Apple icons I'd used beside software descriptions before someone at Apple Legal decided that their use was a threat to the future existence of Apple Computer, Inc.

Anyway, now after some eight months of such "improvement" and the preservation of the Apple look and feel, maybe it's time for Apple to reevaluate its decision in light of the mixed success of its Software Update control panel and the QuickTime Updater. While it appears the stability and reliability issues have been addressed in the 1.1.3 update, Software Update is still slow beyond belief.

Distribution of system updates through the various Macintosh Users Groups and Macintosh magazines had the positive effect of giving folks an archive copy of the update on CD. It also eased the load on Apple servers for the updates. Apple's decision to cancel the privilege of distributing OS updates brings to mind the old adage, "If it ain't broke, don't fix it!" Apple chose to "fix" something in a way that has done little to speed updates. I'd gladly settle for a little less of the Apple look and feel if I could pull out a MacAddict or Washington Pi CD and find the Mac OS 9.0.4 update.

All of this makes a soul wonder if there a day coming when the only way to update your system will be with a Software Update control panel. And, will that control panel carry a registration fee or possibly an upgrade charge. While that sounds a bit far out, one doesn't even need to leave the control panels folder to find the QuickTime Pro requirement of $30 for full features to be enabled.

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View From the Classroom columns copyright 1999-2000 by Steve Wood.

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