It doesn't just work

I'm not a big fan of the whole PC vs Mac argument, mainly because I find it tiresome, with the same old arguments going back and forth endlessly. Macs have no games, one-button mice and are for people who can't be handed anything more complex than crayons because they might chew them. PCs crash endlessly, are over-run with viruses and built out of cardboard and string with the aesthetic sensibility of a dead sparrow.

I could go on and on, but I won't. It's dead boring. As a Mac user, I reckon we, the Mac community, could do a whole lot better. If for no other reason than it's boring, but it's also so inaccurate in places.

That extends to the obvious things that Macs get attacked for — the one-button mouse being the most prominent example — but also some things that the Mac is touted for that simply aren't true. The worst of which is this reliance on the "it just works" mentality.

You know what? Sometimes — more than most Mac fans would like to admit — it just doesn't work. I suspect I'm going to get some scorn for this, but it's true. I'll illustrate with a couple of real world, recent examples of my own, as well as how I've solved them.

Shifting content from one Mac to another is easy, right? Not necessarily. A while ago, I picked up an ex-demo iMac for my wife to use. The same kinds of machines you can find in Apple's refurb store if you're after a bargain, albeit one that may be a little dated. The term used by Apple for this particular machine was "obsolete", so we're not talking cutting edge.

As an already set up machine, it was configured with a user called "Apple Demo", but my wife used it for a while as it was. Keen to set up her own account, and clear out any ex-review detritus that might be cluttering up the system, I set up a fresh installation of Snow Leopard on the machine and restored her documents folder from Time Machine. All good and squeaky clean and "just works", right?

It was, right up until she tried to save a document. Restoring from Time Machine had left all the read/write permissions with the the previous user, not the new user. They were her documents, but she couldn't edit them in any way. I could re-create the Apple Demo user and change the permissions on a file-by-file basis, but that's slow and tedious for several thousand files. Digging around online I discovered there are terminal-based ways to accomplish mass permission changes, but I'm no terminal guru.

For what it's worth, I did fix the problem, and I'll note it here. When you're restoring from Time Machine, permissions persist — which is in line with what most users would want. The same isn't true if you copy the files over to a USB flash drive. Switching into the old Apple Demo user I'd restored, I copied the entire folder over to a connected flash drive, then switched back to the new user and copied from the flash drive to the new user's documents directory. End result? A folder full of free to edit files.

There's probably a mild security hole there, now that I think of it.

"It just works" isn't just limited to Mac OS, either. On the smartphone front, more than a few users have had problems with iOS4 and 3G iPhones. I figured I'd avoided those issues, as the iPhone 3G in the house updated without a hitch, but a friend of mine wasn't so lucky. Being a friend of mine, who do they call when Apple stuff goes wrong? Me.

More specifically, the iOS4 upgrade had wiped all my friend's contacts. iTunes could find one backup, but it had no contacts in it. In other words, it just didn't work. A little further digging found older backups, but for whatever reason iTunes decided that those backups didn't exist at all.

Again, off I head to the font of wisdom that is Google. This one was trickier, as the contacts database is an SQL database, and that's solidly not my thing. Using iPhone Backup Extractor and sqlitebrowser I was able to get a screenshot of the contacts database in a format where my friend could manually re-enter them into their phone.

Problem solved, but it wasn't particularly easy, the solution didn't come from anywhere near Apple itself and ultimately, it didn't "just work".

I reckon that's OK. Not OK in that it took time, persistence and a small amount of growling under my breath to get things working, but OK in that computers are just computers, designed, built and programmed by people, and people are entirely fallible. Stuff goes wrong, and hiding behind a mantra of "it just works" only makes you look daft when it doesn't. Just work, that is.

Discuss this with me at MacTheForum!