Diatribes of Jay

This is a blog of essays on public policy. It shuns ideology and applies facts, logic and math to economic, social and political problems. It has a subject-matter index, a list of recent posts, and permalinks at the ends of posts. Comments are moderated and may take time to appear. Note: Profile updated 4/7/12

18 October 2018

Apple: Please Spin Off OS X (An Open Letter to Tim Cook)


[Today’s essay is a brief break from politics before the final push to the midterm elections; it’s a rare addition to my comments on the computer industry. For how I voted early and why, and how easy it was to vote, click here. For a description of how mind-raping propagandists get people to vote against their own interests, click here. For all the reasons why the FBI’s “investigation” of Christine Blasey Ford’s claim of sexual abuse was a sham, click here. Fox sixteen reasons to vote this time for Democrats only, click here. For a note on the likely electoral consequences of the GOP ramming Kavanaugh through to the Supreme Court, click here. For a note on why the issue has become personal for many, click here. For a short note on how important Professor Ford’s charges are, click here. For comment on President Obama’s decision to join the political fray, click here. For a possible path to Trump’s impeachment and removal, click here. For comment on Trump’s deal with Mexico, click here. For a brief homage to John McCain, followed by reasons to support Stacey Abrams, click here. For a brief note on vote suppression in Georgia as a reason to support Stacey Abrams, click here. For other good candidates and causes and how to contribute easily, click here. For recent posts in reverse chronological order, click here.]

Dear Mr. Cook,

I’ve praised your corporate leadership repeatedly in this blog (see 1 and 2). In refusing to “consider the bloody ROI” while trying “to leave the world better than we found it,” you have challenged the profit-only perspective that is corrupting our entire society.

But today I’m writing to complain about a specific software product, namely, OS X. It seems to me that you have virtually abandoned this industry-leading operating system as a major product of your firm. At least you are no longer giving it the consistent attention and quality support that a major product deserves. (More on this later.)

In so doing, you are effectively abandoning all the superbly designed computer hardware that has made Apple the go-to vendor for consumers, artists, writers, educators and small businesses. For no matter how solid and reliable the hardware itself may be—even with solid-state “disk” storage that never breaks down—a computer is only as good as its OS. Without consistent, quality support of OS X, your slimline “Air” laptops and “Mini” desktop bricks are becoming about as useful as, well, bricks.

Here, in decreasing order of importance, is a short list of unsolvable problems that I’ve had with OS X in just the last several months:

1. An attempt to force-quit Safari on my Mini while having it save a number of windows and tabs on re-opening “broke” the software. It remained frozen and immobile despite various attempts to repair it. Even a complete OS X upgrade (to Mojave) failed to unfreeze it. I had to abandon Safari on that machine entirely and switch to Google Chrome, which works well. (I also tried to replace Safari separately, but the upgraded software wouldn’t let me do it, warning me that Safari is part of the OS. If that’s so, shouldn’t a complete OS upgrade replace it and therefore fix it?)

2. My Macbook Air, vintage mid-2011 (running OS 10.13.6), regularly bogs down, showing the spinning ball and getting nothing done for minutes. (I can also hear the fan increase speed as this happens, indicating overloading of the CPU.) I have to hard-reboot the machine regularly, using the power key.

Perhaps the machine has caught a virus, but I don’t see any other signs. When I use the computer, nearly always while away from home, this happens as often as several times a day. (It seems to happen less often while I’m using Chrome than while I’m using Safari.)

Maybe my Macbook Air is “too old.” But why bother to design superbly durable hardware, with solid-state memory that never fails like hard drives, if you want to build Apple’s fortune on planned obsolescence like that in Detroit’s miserable 1960s-vintage cars? Should a Lexus fail as often as a Ford Pinto?

3. On both my Mac Mini and my MacBook Air, my screens are awash with useless warnings saying some subprogram needs an administrator’s permission, without specifying for what. Most of these useless warnings relate to the printing function or some aspect of Javascript. None of them gives the slightest hint what program or function is calling the subprogram or why. I have searched the “hive mind” of Apple’s users’ forums and applied many remedies, but none works reliably, let alone permanently. The useless warnings keep appearing like pimples on an adolescent.

Surely your programmers could: (1) provide a field in these screens showing what specific program or function is requesting an administrator’s permission and/or (2) provide a means to permanently shut down calls from the same source. But no, they just leave the user wondering whether granting permission could compromise security, or not granting it could compromise some unknown and entirely unspecified function that might later be useful, and ever waiting for the next distracting screen.

* * *

Back in 2003, I permanently abandoned all of Microsoft’s products in favor of Apple’s. I had many reasons. The precipitating event was a software meltdown even more severe than the recent meltdown of Safari on my Mini. It was a total collapse of Microsoft’s Windows OS after my attempt to make a global permissions change.

Another major factor in my abandoning Microsoft was a proliferation of useless warning screens like yours today. Eventually, the warning screens proliferate beyond even the hive mind’s capacity to adapt. Then sophisticated customers lose patience and seek alternatives, just as I am looking at ChromeBooks now.

All this, it seems to me, is repeating computer-industry history. It’s what once drove me from Microsoft to Apple and later drove the consumer, artist, school and small-business markets from Microsoft to Apple, too. They, as I, concluded that Microsoft and its products work best for firms with full-time, dedicated computer professionals.

I’m no computer novice or computer phobe. I have a Ph.D. (1971, UCSD) in physics. I’ve programmed in Fortran and Basic and now do my own HTML formatting on this blog. I bought my first PC in 1986 (a Leading Edge) and programmed some functions on it before the software industry caught up. For the last twenty years or so I have been on line about 10-20 hours per week. As a law professor, I’ve taught courses in computer law, antitrust law, telecommunications law and the intersection of these fields. So I have a good feel for the conduct of firms like Microsoft in its heyday, which use monopoly power to push inferior software on customers and squeeze out competitors.

When I have a software problem, I seldom suffer those horrible telephone queues, which I’ve parodied on this blog, and which are not much better at Apple than anywhere else. I literally sleep on the problem or browse the user forums. I usually come up with a solution or work-around the next day.

But the frequency and depth of the recent problems with OS X have overwhelmed my interest, patience and persistence. I have no desire to become an expert in Javascript or how it works on various websites, although I’m happy to enjoy the extra security that Chrome provides by letting me choose which specific websites can run Javascript on my computers. (The recent explosion of on-line security issues in the news only confirms that decision.)

Collectively, problems with OS X and its plug-ins are now approaching the levels that once made me abandon all Microsoft software. I fear the same process of degradation in quality and unnecessary complexity is overtaking OS X. There are several key indicators.

Mobile devices are a far bigger money-maker for Apple than computers. In the rush to provide a consistent “ecosystem” among iPhones, tablets and computers, Apple appears to have shoved computer users to the back of the bus. Hence OS X suffers gratuitous and annoying (and sometimes even inconsistent) changes, such as jettisoning the venerable “Save As . . .” command, which dates from the dawn of the mini-computer industry.

More important, the perennial battle between the Cloud and local storage is reaching a critical phase. Apple is far behind Google and Amazon in making the balance between the two kinds of storage efficient, seamless, transparent and friendly to users. The problems of passwords for Apple’s “Application Store” alone would require a whole separate essay.

Some computer users with large storage needs will used the Cloud in volume; others may not. Apple increasingly doesn’t seem to understand this. Instead, it appears to be trying to “monetize” the Cloud regardless of users’ needs or preferences.

Finally, there’s the reluctance—for which Steve Jobs was notorious—to “play nice” with independent firms like Adobe and Oracle. At the moment, Apple is far behind Google and Amazon in making plug-ins like Adobe’ Reader and Flash and Oracle’s Javascript operate well and transparently for the user’s benefit. Sometimes Apple’s apparent recalcitrance degenerates into neglect and even minor acts of sabotage—behavior of which Microsoft once was suspected and for which it was sued (as a means of maintaining its monopoly).

Customers who (unlike me) did not teach courses in antitrust and computer law don’t care about the business reasons or the justification, if any, for their troubles. Nor in retirement do I. All we see is software that doesn’t work, produces numerous unwanted distractions, requires high maintenance, or otherwise imposes burdens on users that its own programmers self-evidently ought to bear.

I have great respect for Apple as an institution. I have cited it on this blog as an exemplar of the coming “corporate rule” during humanity’s third millennium after Christ, pointing out that it once had greater cash reserves than France. And of course I’ve made a good deal of money investing in Apple’s stock—although more on a slow “in-and-out” basis than might once have been appropriate for a “blue chip.”

But for some users there is no substitute for a real computer—a machine with a full-size screen and a complete keyboard, loaded with so-called “productivity” programs that do more than just communicate or display. You cannot do serious writing, art, curriculum development, or product development on a tablet or iPhone. Nor can you run a small business on one.

So if Apple cannot maintain the excellence, solidity, transparency and ease of use of OS X, which makes its laptops, consumer desktops and professional desktops work, I beg you to spin off the product into an independent firm that can. Doing so would be entirely consistent with Steve Jobs’ legacy. After all, it was his wandering in the wilderness with the “Next” operating system that gave rise to OS X and Apple’s second life.

There is also a good practical reason for separating OS X from the rest of Apple’s software “ecosystem.” Computer users are a different breed. They are both more “serious” and more specialized than the vast majority of phone and tablet users. Their “apps,” aka “programs,” are necessarily larger, more precise, generally more demanding technically, and generally less forgiving of errors and casual changes.

Computer programs also have far more history and legacy than the average app. They have such things as that venerable “save as” command, which lasted 50 years before some underage phone guru killed it. The abandoned “save as” command once enabled a user to do at least each of the following in a single step: (1) save a variant copy of an original file, i.e., another version, (2) change the saved original, (3) move the same original to another location (file), (4) make an exact copy under another name, or (5) prepare a new draft of the original for later work, without disturbing the original.

Computer users are the old men and women of the device world. They have more established, particular and specialized needs that only they fully appreciate. Therefore they and designers who serve their needs primarily, if not exclusively, should design their hardware and software. To think otherwise is to believe that motor-scooter makers ought to begin designing cars and trucks.

Respectfully yours,

Jay Dratler, Jr., Ph.D., J.D.

Goodyear Professor of Intellectual Property, Emeritus
University of Akron School of Law

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