06 December 2009

Not a Granny Smith

A couple of weeks ago, I tried to upgrade my MacBook to Apple’s latest operating system, nicknamed Snow Leopard. Theoretically, this should have been as easy as popping in the disc and clicking a bunch of “Continue” buttons. In practice, that was not true at all. The installation software said that it could not proceed because my hard drive wasn’t the disc used to boot up the computer. Hunh? Web research ensued, and I came to the conclusion that the only solution involved erasing and repartitioning my hard drive, and then installing Snow Leopard. That sounded drastic; I put Snow Leopard away.

A few days later, I called Apple support, to try to resolve this. The guy on the other end of the line was patient and helpful, and walked me through a series of tests, before coming to the conclusion that, yes, the hard drive needed to be repartitioned. Why? He didn’t know, but he acknowledged that I was clearly not the first person to face the issue. He assured me that the Time Machine backup I had made prior to the call would work as promised, and he led me through the process.

This has a happy ending: it took about a half-hour to reinstall the original Leopard operating system, another 90 minutes to restore everything from the back-up, and then another 45 minutes or so to add Snow Leopard. Time Machine restored my computer perfectly—everything, down to each tweak, setting, and file. It was a reminder of the genius nature of that system, and credit to Apple for figuring it out: a back-up system that allows both a system-wide restoration and a file-by-file exploration, under one built-in software umbrella. And now my machine runs faster, courtesy of Snow Leopard.


Earlier today, I went in to the Apple story to have them check out my iPhone. A couple weeks ago, the little switch that controls the ringer just snapped off. I’ve been able, with the aid of finger nails, to flick the stub of the switch around when desperately necessary but it is a drag.

The “geniuses” in Apple’s Upper West Side store were terrific. My phone is in great shape, and it was clear that this was both a small problem—and not a reflection of serious abuse. Plus, the phone is covered under Apple’s extended warranty program.

Or so I thought. I bought the extended warranty after I bought the phone, but the salesman at the Apple store told me that just by purchasing it, the warranty was in effect. Not so: I needed to activate it, and I hadn’t done that. Today, Apple took care of that for me—it helped that I had the receipt, showing I’d purchased it last February—and then, when finished, replaced the phone. No more questions asked. Then they let me sit there while I connected the new iPhone to my laptop and “restored” the settings from the old phone to the new one, courtesy of another smart Apple back-up tool.

Which also worked more or less flawlessly. (The less: I had to manually put my music, etc., back on the phone. A very slight inconvenience in the overall process.) It took about two hours to do the full restore, but it meant that two hours later I had my iPhone back, with all my apps, settings, old text messages...


I finally broke up with Microsoft a little more than a year ago, and thus far, Apple has not let me down. In fact, my household has converted, my extended family has converted, and my office may convert, too. Still—despite reaffirming the high quality of Apple’s products, software, and services—these two experiences highlight the frustrating nature of computers and personal technology when something goes wrong. And invariably, something will go wrong at some point.

My experiences are not unique, but that’s the point. I remain concerned that we rely too much on these machines to (help us) manage our lives, without giving due attention to the weaknesses of the systems, or of ourselves. One lesson in all this is, clearly, back-up regularly. Another is buy Apple: the products and services are better value for the money. The biggest lesson of all may be the one we will never learn: to start relying on less fragile systems, before our collective memory needs to be erased and repartitioned, with little hope of a full, restorable back-up available.

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