April 2005
How Come OSuX?

An Open Letter to the Head Apple

by Paul D. Lehrman

Dear Steve:

You know that I love the computers you make. I've been using them for almost 25 years, which is the longest I've been loyal to any brand of anything, with the possible exception of my toothpaste. The first one I owned was an Apple II, which was a joy and a revelation after all the time I spent programming with punch cards on IBM mainframes. And when the Mac came out, I bought one of the first ones, with the understanding that I could henceforth forget command-line interfaces forever.

I helped develop some of the first Mac music software and wrote for several of the early Macintosh magazines. I've owned about 15 Macs during the years, and built four college labs around Macs. Eight or so years ago, when the pundits were proclaiming Apple's imminent death, I stuck to my guns and told anyone who would listen to stay the course: We didn't have to jump like lemmings over to the dark side of Wintel. And I was right.

Today, Steve, my faith continues to be rewarded. The computers you're making are astonishingly capable, versatile and brilliantly designed — from the iBooks up to the dual 2-gig G5s — and they do everything I always wanted to do and much, much more.

But there's this thing you call OS X. Oh, I think it's pretty cool. Core Audio is great: I was getting really tired of trying to keep track of all those ASIO drivers and plug-ins folders for every device in every application. And I like the way you can bail out of a hung-up application without (usually) having to reboot the machine. The security features are really useful, and Safari is so much faster, cleaner and generally less of a pain in the butt than Internet Explorer that I haven't even bothered to put IE on my new machine.

But it took me a while to warm to OS X. Part of that is just the way I am. Far from being the passionate first adopter I was in Mac's early days, these days, I tend to lag well behind the bleeding edge when it comes to bringing new software into my life. Not having my work disrupted is more important to me than being the first on my block to have the newest cool toy.

And part of it was you: As I wrote in this space just about two years ago, OS X took a while before it was ready for prime time in the audio and music arenas. So I didn't install it in my home studio and school labs until just last summer. That doesn't make me the last to arrive at the party, but it does show you how cautious I've been. And I'm glad I waited.

And yet, there are things about OS X as it stands today — whether you call it Panther, Jaguar, Hyena, Hippopotamus or whatever — that drive me absolutely nuts. I don't mean they're irritating: I mean they make me want to throw my computer out of a third-story window, which is a feeling I've had before about some equipment, but never my Macs. Oddly enough, some of these are things I thought we managed to leave behind years ago. And I know I'm not alone: Heck, my fellow MacUser alumnus John Rizzo just came out with a whole book called Mac Annoyances. (Have you read it, Steve?) So I thought I'd let you know about them. Maybe I'll be able to use them in my legal defense when I get busted for felony littering.

The G4 I use in my studio came with OS 10.0-something already on it, but I knew that its MIDI and audio support was pretty lame, so I never used it. I finally decided it was time to give OS X a fair trial when 10.3 came out. Trouble was, the installation took me three days. I found out later — much later — that there was a problem with some of the third-party RAM I had bought with the machine. It ran fine under OS 9, and it even ran fine under OS X, but when I tried to update OS X, the machine gave me all sorts of useless messages about missing Chinese Language utilities — and stalled. Okay, Steve, that's not your fault and there are warnings all over the Internet about using third-party (read: reasonably priced) memory, but how hard would it be to put some kind of error trapping in the installer routines that tells me what's really going on instead of blaming it on the Third World?

So I replaced the questionable RAM and now system updates don't stall, but I still dread them. Why? Because they still seem to take forever. The progress bar moves quite nicely for the first couple of minutes in the “installation” phase, but then the software insists on doing some inexplicable kind of “optimization” (it's not disk optimization, which your support docs claim is unnecessary under OS X, but they don't say what it is) and that typically takes half an hour, during which time, the progress bar does a fair imitation of the growth cycle of Astroturf.

And another thing: For 20 years, the Mac was pretty much unique in the computer world in that if there was something you didn't like about a new operating system, you could trash it and go back to an older version. Oh, I know the practice stopped being “officially” supported a while ago, and as the OS got more complex, it became a pretty gnarly operation, but it always worked for me, right up to system 9.2.1. But now, I guess, the operating system has “matured,” which means that I'm spewing tons of invisible, locked, weirdly named, artfully buried and otherwise inviolable files all over the disk whenever I do a system upgrade.

The result is that if I make a mistake and installed an OS that's too new for my applications (as I stupidly did when I installed 10.3.7 without checking Digidesign's compatibility pages to see if Pro Tools would cooperate with it, which at the time it most definitely would not), my only recourse is to wipe the hard disk and start all over. This means not only losing all my files (which presumably could be backed up), but also my software keys, registrations, preferences — in short, many hours of my life.

The proliferation of library directories in OS X would make a pregnant sturgeon blush. There are libraries at the root level, libraries inside the system and libraries for each user account. There are ones for audio and ones for plug-ins and ones with different developers' names on them. How do we know what lives where? The answer: We don't! Not me, not the folks who write your support documents and, most dangerously, not the developers.

I'm told this is in the nature of UNIX. Well, guess what? I didn't buy a Mac to run UNIX and neither did 95 percent of the other Mac owners. And you know that, Steve: You've worked really hard to hide some of the more onerous aspects of UNIX behind all that groovy-looking Aqua stuff, so why couldn't you do something about this nonsense, too?

Here's an example: In a well-known audio program, there's a feature that lets you set up a whole bunch of different matrices containing multiple processing modules, and you can step from one matrix to the next as you move through a file. But in a recent version, if there was more than one user on the computer, using this feature crashed the program. Why? Apparently because the program would write the matrix settings to a library, which it then couldn't read because it didn't have permission. I sent several e-mails to the software company about this, but that company's representatives couldn't figure out how to make it happen, so then I showed it to them at their AES booth — it took me three minutes. One of the company techs turned white and another later wrote me, “You have no idea how difficult all of the libraries make my job.”

And how about patch names? Remember them, Steve? Some of us aren't just using the software instruments you throw in with GarageBand and Logic; we still have real hardware synths and samplers that we love. And we'd like to be able to see their patch names show up in our software the way we could ever since OMS first hit the streets. Don't get me wrong: As far as OMS and MOTU's barely functional PatchList Manager are concerned, I couldn't be happier that they're gone, if it weren't for the fact that now we have no way of doing this at all.

What we do have are a dozen or so libraries, where hundreds of factory patch lists that come from God-knows-where are stored in the form of XML documents. Now, you might think that because they're all in the same format, any application would be able to access them, but a lot of programs can't find them because they don't like where the documents are located or because the documents have some obscure header that the applications refuse to recognize.

And if trying to get the lists to display isn't hard enough, you should try to customize them. I'm one of those incorrigible rebels who actually likes to customize the patches in my synths, but once I've gotten patch names to show up, if I want to see my new names, I have to wade through and correct every single tag in the patch document with a text editor and pray that I don't make a typing error, lest the whole thing vanish when I try to open it. Steve, how about getting somebody over there in Infinite Loop to build a little application into Audio MIDI Setup that makes this process just a wee bit friendlier?

Speaking of Audio MIDI Setup, where the hell is the Save command? Why can't I preserve anything I do in that program? The way it works now, every time I move a MIDI cable, I'm forced to rebuild my entire setup from scratch. I change my MIDI rig around a lot, depending on whether I'm working on a film project, performance piece or classroom lesson, or I'm testing some new hardware or software. Handling those kinds of changes was one thing that OMS did right: It let me keep a different file for each configuration and I could call it up whenever I needed it, whether or not the hardware was actually there.

But now, if I go to a configuration in Audio MIDI Setup and the computer doesn't see some piece of hardware that the configuration expects, it wipes it off the face of the Earth. If, God forbid, my MIDI interface is turned off, all of my cabling disappears. And every time I change anything in my rig, whether it's a new interface, module or USB keyboard, I have to build a new setup and say a permanent farewell to the old one. It's a pain, Steve. How would you like it if every time you opened a new document, you had to completely reconfigure your Ethernet, Appletalk, sharing, AirPort, USB, SCSI, FireWire and printer preferences?

You've never been a big fan of USB, and I don't blame you. If I never see a USB audio interface again, it will be much too soon. It's bad enough trying to force MIDI through a protocol that has no reliable clock, but to cram audio through there is asking for trouble, especially when, as some interfaces claim they can do, you try to send four channels at 96 kHz. But my problem isn't about bandwidth. I don't know if this is your fault or USB's, but whenever I'm using a multitrack application with a USB interface and I'm mixing multiple tracks down to just two, there comes a point when the output takes off into the Twilight Zone: The sound stops and the interface disappears from the hardware menu. The only way I've found to bring it back is to turn off the interface, turn it back on again, call up the application's hardware menu and pray to the gods of connectivity (who generally offer 2-to-1 odds against) that it shows up. If it doesn't, restart the computer — because this is one nasty situation when even Force Quit won't work.

Do you know that if you're doing audio on the Mac, you can't ever let your computer sleep? That's the word I got from several manufacturers who tell me that when the Mac wakes up, their hardware won't work. In the case of M-Audio's new FireWire Solo, the computer just won't see it. In the case of Digidesign's Mbox, the computer sees it but that nice polite interface transforms into a high-SPL noise generator — as soon as you put audio through it, the most godawful digital hash pours from the outputs, making little smoke bombs out of your tweeters.

I told you before about the problems I had installing OS 10.3, but this little glitch made them even worse than I described. You see, when I realized I needed to back up my internal system drive so that I could de-install the brand-spanking-new operating system that Pro Tools wouldn't run on, I went out and bought a 120G FireWire external drive. The backup went okay, but the next day, after I had wiped the system drive, my lovely new external drive wouldn't show up on my desktop. Fighting panic, I called a friend who suggested I remove the FireWire drive from its case (voiding the warranty, of course) and install it on an internal bus inside the Mac. Then I'd know if the drive was screwed or if it was something else. I did that and the drive came right up, so I knew at least I hadn't permanently lost about 60 gigs (and 20 years') worth of data.

So I went to a local store to buy an enclosure in which to put the drive so that I could keep working. (It cost about two-thirds as much as the drive.) It worked great for the first day, but the next day, the drive once again failed to show up on the desktop.

After pulling out some more hair, I discovered that I could get the disk to show up on my laptop if I ran it in OS 9. So I thought, “Okay, I'd better do another backup.” I went back to the store where I had bought the enclosure, exchanged it for a second FireWire drive, brought it home, daisy-chained it from the laptop with the first drive and copied all the data from it.

Was this just a bad run of luck with some hardware? Not on your life. This was a known problem, but there was — and still is — nothing about it on Apple's site. A number of online sources had the truth: There was a nasty conflict between some versions of OS 10.3 and the “Oxford 911” FireWire chipset that's found in many, if not most, external FireWire 400 drives.

Here's what happens: If the power to your drive is off when you boot your computer and you subsequently turn the drive on, then the disk directory gets corrupted. It can also happen if you turn off the drive while the computer is running or if you hot-connect a drive. This corruption is not something where the Mac says, “Hang on a second, let me fix something on your drive.” Instead, it causes the drive to disappear from the desktop and even Disk Utility, at least at first, can't bring it back.

When you've got as much of your life backed up on your drive as I do, this can be a little disconcerting. From what I read on the forums, a lot of people have had their pins knocked out from under them by this, and it has also shown up in some of the printed magazines, but Steve, you've never addressed or admitted it.

Fortunately, as I discovered from sheer experimentation, Disk Utility can bring it back, but it takes about 15 minutes for the software to just find the drive and another half-hour or so (although I imagine this varies with the size of the drive) to repair the directory. Of course, my Mac can't be doing anything else while all this nonsense is going on. So have I found a fix? Yeah: I never, ever turn off the drives.

Who decided that from now on you can only move a window by grabbing its top? When you have as many windows open as I usually do, the last thing you want to do is go searching for a title bar when you're trying to move something out of the way.

And what's the deal about non-standard characters in file names? I know there are rules in UNIX about this — how they can't contain slashes or question marks — but why are they enforced so inconsistently? If I copy a bunch of old files from one disk to another, sometimes the process will stop dead when it finds a file — inevitably, deep inside some sub-sub-sub-sub-folder so it takes five minutes to find it — with a slash in it (I have a lot of these as I like to put dates on things), but sometimes it just pushes it on through like stewed prunes. And sometimes when I'm copying, the thing will hang up on some invisible file called “_Icon.” What's up with that? If I can't see it and the system can't copy it, why the hell is it trying to?

And how about while you're wasting all that time with that “optimizing” thing you do, you take care of that “fix permissions” nonsense so I don't have to do it manually every time I start a studio session? Because I know if I don't, all of a sudden at a crucial point, I'll be denied access to some critical file and everything will grind to a halt. And why the hell do I have to deal with “permissions” in my home studio anyway? It's my machine, no one else uses it, so why can't I just do what I want with it?

Steve, I love your machines and I can't imagine life without them. And you know that I'll keep buying them as long as you keep making them. But a lot of us creative types bought Macs in the first place so we wouldn't have to deal with this horseshit, and for a good many years, we didn't. You'd make a lot of us happier if you could make it smell nicer or, better still, sweep it outta here.

Your pal,

Paul D. Lehrman once sat at a blackjack table with Steve Wozniak. Paul lost.

Copyright ©2005 by Paul D. Lehrman