Dear Apple: Your upgrade policy sucks

Apple’s ‘my way or the highway’ upgrade policy for OS X really needs to change

While changes in technology are generally a mark of progress, they are not always immediately for the better. Certain hardware and software vendors would do well to understand that reality -- Apple, for instance.

Apple has long enjoyed a unique position in the marketplace in that it controls both the hardware and software running on its various platforms. This tight integration has allowed the company to produce some of the most stable and functional computer hardware ever made. This has also allowed Apple to make dramatic changes in both hardware and software without appearing to care a whit for its users, often condemning them to vast frustrations for no logical reason.

It’s easy to pick out a few hardware changes that left many in the dust, such as when Apple began deleting floppy drives from their systems, followed by optical drives, trackpad buttons, various I/O ports, and all of the other mainstream elements that Apple summarily jettisoned from most or all of its product lines. In nearly every case, those who predicted that removing such-and-such component would render the product unusable were wrong.

When Apple very publicly declined to support Adobe Flash on the iPhone, Apple critics had a field day, claiming that Apple was backward for refusing to support what was clearly an aging standard unsuitable for mobile use. But over the next few years we saw the rise of HTML5, which beats Flash at its own game in almost every scenario.

I don’t fault Apple for these kinds of changes, even when they seem highly questionable (as in the new MacBook 12). It’s one point to introduce “inconvenient” changes in entirely new products, and another one entirely to introduce changes that cut off existing customers at the knees. My beef is with Apple’s infinitely frustrating habit of forcing users to either run the absolute newest version of the OS or to never upgrade again. For a large number of Mac users, that’s unacceptable. It’s not merely inconvenient, but potentially damaging to a business that relies on Apple software.

The obvious example here is where Macs have long found a comfortable home: audio and video production. Recording studios and video production studios use Mac workstations for their daily bread and butter, along with a significant number of highly specialized software and hardware that has to be perfectly in tune with the workstation hardware and software to function properly. If it does not function properly, the business loses money immediately.

Let’s use the example of a music recording studio. A Mac Pro has been running Mac OS X 10.8 for quite some time. It has been running all manner of apps -- such as Apple’s own Logic DAW, ProTools, Digital Performer, Reason, perhaps Native Instruments Kontakt, and the Universal Audio dedicated DSP hardware and software -- and it has been extremely stable. All of this is for music production, mixing, and mastering.

The work represented in the files created on this system is measured in not only the hours required to create the files, but in many cases spontaneous performances that would be difficult if not impossible to reproduce. Naturally, this system is not updated unless those updates are absolutely required. To blithely apply suggested OS updates is to invite gremlins.

In this real-world example, a new synth or audio processing software release requires at least Mac OS X 10.9. This system then must be updated. Unfortunately, a significant number of plug-ins and at least two drivers do not work in Mac OS X 10.10 due to driver signing and other incompatibilities. In fact, it may be a year (or never) before some of the software runs on Yosemite. Unfortunately, Apple has restricted its updates to only Mac OS X 10.10. You can’t pop open the App Store and select to download and install Mac OS X 10.9; installing OS X 10.10 is the only option.

Not knowing this fact, an engineer elects to upgrade the system. Naturally, all hell breaks loose as some critical audio interfaces are rendered offline, while others are plagued by driver issues that cause pops and crackles in the audio stream. The system has to be restored from backup -- which takes quite a long time due to the large number of sample libraries and other data on the system -- and the studio is down for the duration. Not only is the studio offline while the engineer recovers to a functional system, it still has no clear path to install OS X 10.9, which would work properly with all its gear.

If the studio is fortunate, someone on staff or a person they know downloaded the Mac OS X 10.9 installer before 10.10 was released. They can get a copy of that installer and upgrade to 10.9. Or they could hit various seedy regions of the Internet and grab a copy someone has uploaded that may or may not have malware buried inside. They either need to be lucky or take on the daunting risks of installing and relying on software without known provenance.

Another, more widespread example would be mobile apps -- it’s nigh on impossible to downgrade a particular app unless you get deep into the weeds. It’s simply irresponsible for Apple and other software vendors to paint users into this corner. There should be no expectation that every user can move their systems to the latest release without negative ramifications. At the very least, commercial software vendors should provide an official repository for older software releases like every open source project does.

That would go a long way toward alleviating this problem and might actually reduce the overall support burden. If you think about it, there are many who would like to upgrade from 10.8 to 10.9, but can’t upgrade to 10.10, so they’ll stay on 10.8 for as long as possible. Shouldn’t they at least be able to safely upgrade to the last stable release?

But hey, Apple has never been a company to let reality get in the way of hubris.

Copyright © 2015 IDG Communications, Inc.