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Fault and Responsibility

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- 2001.05.09 - Tip Jar

The controversy over Apple's March 23 firmware updates has burst into flame again as Low End Mac columnist Chris Lawson has tried to absolve Apple of responsibility for causing "certain non-spec-compliant RAM modules to be unusable in computers with the firmware update" (It's not Apple's fault, 05.08).

I respectfully disagree.

Chronology

On March 23, 2001, a Friday, Apple released firmware updates for Power Mac G4s, Cubes, FireWire PowerBooks, iBooks, and slot-loading iMacs. The documentation noted that the firmware update "includes improvements to FireWire target disk mode, network booting and system stability."

It didn't say anything about possibly preventing anyone from using any memory they may have installed in their computers. It was the Mac Web that uncovered and publicized the problem - by Saturday morning several sites were warning against installing the update because some users had lost access to some or all of the memory in their Macs.

Many of us tried to discern a pattern - Was it just 2-2-2 RAM? If so, why wasn't it all 2-2-2 RAM? - while Apple remained silent.

That's right, Apple didn't acknowledge the problem or make any kind of statement on Monday, March 26, although practically every Mac site had an article or link about the problem by then. Ditto for Tuesday, Wednesday, and every day until April 3. Finally, eleven days after releasing the firmware update Apple basically said, "Live with it, because we're not going to change a thing."

Well, they did change one thing - they added the following to the software download page for the firmware update:

Note: The Apple 4.1.7 (or 4.1.8) firmware update incorporates a number of fixes that dramatically improve system stability and performance. These updates also include a new check that validates whether the installed memory in the machine is compatible. This check was added to help alleviate random crashes and stability issues. The new memory test disables memory DIMMs that are found to be out of specification and DIMMs that can not be determined to be compatible. As a result, some third party memory that was recognized by previous versions of firmware may no longer be recognized after the updates.

Old News

In The Firmware Police, Lawson notes, "Apple has, in all their Developer Notes since at least the iMac (and probably earlier), specified JEDEC-standard RAM." Searching Apple's developer notes, I find JEDEC-standard RAM specified for Macs as old as the PowerBook G3 Series (released 4/98) and the original iMac (8/98).

The oldest models that accept the latest firmware updates are the Power Mac G4 (8/99), original iBook (9/99), and slot-loading iMac (10/99). From August 1999 through March 2001, Apple specified JEDEC-standard RAM but didn't require it. As is evident from the number of people who lost access to some or all of their memory after the firmware update, these Macs seemingly worked just fine with noncompliant memory.

When I buy memory, I tell the vendor, "This has to work in my PowerBook G4." Like others, I assume the vendor knows what RAM works and what doesn't work. I don't specify JEDEC-standard RAM - until Lawson's article, I knew nothing about the specification. All I asked for was memory that worked.

By not enforcing their own specification until late March 2001, Apple allowed memory manufacturers and RAM vendors to ignore that specification. Even as recently January 2001, Apple was releasing computers that worked with memory that wasn't JEDEC-standard - if that hadn't been the case, PowerBook G4 owners would never have had to worry about the firmware update.

Apple Firmware History

Firmware updates are nothing new to Apple, nor are compatibility problems. Apple IIgs users can probably repeat the litany of firmware updates (then done by replacing ROMs) that made different programs incompatible each time around. With each free firmware update, the user wondered if it was worth the frustration of once again finding out what would work and what wouldn't.

More recently, we had a Blue & White G3 firmware update that turned a computer that could accept a G4 upgrade into one that could no longer do so. (See Why the G4 Uproar? and MacInTouch Reader Report.) As with the current firmware update, Apple never warned users that they might lose any capabilities that their computers already had.

In the end, the upgrade manufacturers had to write their own software patches to overcome the block Apple added to the Blue & White G3s with this firmware update. This wouldn't have been necessary if Apple hadn't unexpectedly removed a capability from those computers.

The latest firmware update does the same kind of thing - it prevents Macs from using certain memory modules that had worked in the past.

I don't know where you stand on the issue, but I don't like the idea of Apple making unauthorized changes to my computer. And I consider it nothing less than that when Apple removes an ability via firmware update and never tells me in advance that it's doing so.

It's my computer, Apple. Please let me know exactly what your firmware update is going to do so I can provide informed consent before installing an irreversible update.

It Is Apple's Fault

I'm not saying the memory industry is without blame. Apple has specified JEDEC-standard RAM for three years; memory vendors should have known about that standard and made sure they only sold compliant memory for Macs made since 1998.

For the most part, that's exactly what they did. Most users most of the time had no problem with the firmware update; their RAM was already compliant.

But I'm not going to let Apple off the hook. For three years they made computers that specified JEDEC-compliant memory but didn't require it. My TiBook is the most recent example, one of the new Macs released in January 2001.

If Apple had been that concerned with the JEDEC specification, they should have been designing new Macs to require it beginning in 1998. That would have completely eliminated the problem, since the oldest models that accept this firmware update are from August 1999.

Instead, Apple played fast-and-loose with the firmware, allowing noncompliant RAM to work. As far as we could tell, the memory worked just fine. And then some users installed the recent firmware update and lost access to that memory.

By building the PowerBook G4 and the most recent Power Mac G4s with firmware that still worked with non-JEDEC-compliant memory, a lot of people with new Macs and new memory ran the risk of losing the ability to use that memory after installing Apple's firmware update.

And there wasn't a single word of caution on Apple's site or with the updater warning that this might happen.

That is definitely Apple's fault. They shouldn't be making firmware changes two months after a model is introduced that can disable memory just purchased for that computer and apparently working perfectly.

Is It Disabled?

In It's not Apple's fault, Chris Lawson takes issue with the word "disabled," claiming, "It didn't even disable any RAM. It only caused certain non-spec-compliant RAM modules to be unusable in computers with the firmware update. The RAM itself was completely untouched."

I have a hard time distinguishing between disabling something and making it unusable. Although the memory modules themselves haven't been changed, the simple fact is that it has become unusable. The updated Mac is unable to access the memory. In my book, that's disabled, just like taking after-market tires off a car would disable it.

Mac Users to the Rescue

With Apple mum on the subject, I didn't dare install the firmware update on my PowerBook G4 until I could verify that my new memory was compatible. After all, I'd removed the stock 128 MB DIMM and replaced it with a pair of 256 MB DIMMs. If this RAM became unusable, my TiBook would also be unusable.

Then Glenn Anderson created DIMMCheck, a program that could test RAM and tell whether it was compatible with the firmware update. Being assured that the 2-2-2 RAM in my TiBook was compatible, I installed the firmware update, and my computer has been more stable since then.

Going far beyond the call of duty, Anderson next created DIMMFirstAid, a program that modifies most noncompliant DIMMs and makes them compatible with the firmware update. He recommends swapping noncompliant memory for compliant RAM if possible, but if your memory vendor doesn't support that, DIMMFirstAid will usually get you by.

What Apple Should Have Done

Apple should have required JEDEC-standard RAM via firmware as new models were released over the past two or three years. That would have eliminated installed memory that was noncompliant. We would have avoided this whole unpleasant situation.

But Apple didn't do that.

Apple should have a policy of telling users exactly what firmware updates are going to do. After all, Apple no longer owns these computers; the owners should be able to make informed consent before installing a firmware update. Apple should also allow firmware downgrades in cases where the update causes problems.

Apple hasn't done that yet.

Apple should have tested some third-party memory before releasing the update. In fact, they may have done that and been lucky enough to only test JEDEC-standard RAM, but we don't know whether they tested any non-Apple RAM. They should have known that tightening memory tolerances could cause some third-party memory to fail and posted a warning.

But Apple didn't do that.

Apple should have pulled the firmware updates as soon as the problem was detected. If not Saturday morning, they should have removed it from their site by noon Monday while they dug into the issue.

But Apple left the updaters up with no warning for 11 days.

Once they knew the cause of the problem, Apple should have created a program like DIMMCheck and posted it on their site, giving Mac users a chance to test for compatibility before installing the firmware update.

Apple didn't do that, either.

All Apple did in its arrogance was say, "We warned you years ago to only use JEDEC-standard RAM. Tough luck if you didn't," and post the warning (quoted above) on the firmware update page. There is still no mention of a test for memory compatibility.

Fault and Responsibility

Looking at the whole thing, we cannot absolve Apple of responsibility for creating this problem. If they hadn't tightened the memory specifications midcourse, if they had issued some sort of warning, if they had even acknowledged the problem as soon as they knew about it, I wouldn't find them culpable.

However, when Apple makes changes to your computer, they are responsible for the changes made. If they don't warn you of a change or potential problem, they are at fault should a problem arise.

Yes, some of the blame rests with some memory vendors who have been selling noncompliant RAM. (For the most part, vendors have been selling compliant RAM.) But the simple fact is that Apple allowed noncompliant memory to work in their new models for three years after specifying JEDEC-standard RAM.

In the end, the fear, uncertainty, doubt, and occasional loss of memory is mostly Apple's fault.

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Dan Knight has been using Macs since 1986, sold Macs for several years, supported them for many more years, and has been publishing Low End Mac since April 1997. If you find Dan's articles helpful, please consider making a donation to his tip jar.

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