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The Evolving World of Mac Backup Software

by Joe Kissell

Because I write so much about backups, I try to keep on top of all the programs one can use to back up a Mac, and their ever-changing feature sets. While working on the recently released version 3.0 of "Take Control of Mac OS X Backups [1]," I realized that the appendix in which I provided feature-comparison checklists was badly out of date, and that trying to update it as I'd done in the past was a lost cause - it would just be obsolete again a day later. So instead, I've put that information on a Web page [2], where I can update it much more quickly and easily than revising an ebook.

At the moment, this online appendix provides feature comparisons of 90 Mac OS X backup programs (not counting seven enterprise-oriented programs that I mention but don't describe in detail) - and I wouldn't be at all surprised if my list is still incomplete. Think about that for a moment. Nearly 100 different Mac programs that claim to have some type of backup capability. Incredible. To be sure, not all of them meet my criteria for a backup program, which is to say that some of them are incapable of producing either an additive incremental archive or a bootable duplicate - that makes them, essentially, "merely" synchronization programs (useful, just not the same thing as a backup). But still, when I saw that number I was truly astounded.

I'm all in favor of choice, but seriously... Mac users do not need this many backup options! Who has time to sort through them all, test them, figure out which program uses which terminology to mean what, and come up with a meaningful evaluation of what's actually useful? (Yes, I know, that's what I get paid to do, but I was speaking rhetorically.) What we need is a small number of excellent options. And yet, although my list of 90-plus programs includes some that are very good, there isn't a single one to which I'd give a perfect 10-out-of-10 rating, or even 9 out of 10. In my professional judgment, every backup program I've tried has room to improve - in some cases, significant room.

It is by no means my intention to diss all the world's Mac backup software. In fact, I can confidently say that, all things considered, the range of options available today is vastly better than what was available a year or two ago. All I'm saying is, despite the quantitative and qualitative increases we've seen recently, we haven't reached Backup Nirvana yet, and I'd rather see more work on the quality side than a greater number of so-so choices.

Backups Redux -- Still, what strikes me more than anything else about my revised list of Mac backup programs is how much activity (new programs and updates released) has occurred since the release of Mac OS X 10.5 Leopard. When Apple announced Time Machine, a lot of people worried that it would spell the end of third-party backup software for the Mac. On the contrary, just the opposite seems to have happened. The buzz surrounding Time Machine has helped to educate Mac users about the importance of good backups, and that has increased the interest in backup software generally. Inevitably, some people discover that Time Machine isn't what they need (or isn't all they need) and search for alternatives or supplements, and developers seem happy to jump on that bandwagon.

The people who create backup software are being more creative, too. Previously, I had divided my feature-comparison list into three main sections: programs that create archives, programs that create duplicates, and programs that do both; later on I listed things like synchronization utilities, version control software, and Internet backup services, which were outside the scope of what I considered core backup options. But developers, it seems, have not made it their top priority to preserve the tidiness of my lists. With wanton disregard for my carefully considered classification system and the number of table cells that can reasonably fit on a page, they've added novel features left and right, created programs that intertwingle categories in ways I'd never imagined, and otherwise altered the rules for creating backups. As a result, I've had to do a considerable amount of extra typing, copying, and pasting, with more undoubtedly to come. Thanks a lot, guys!

Current Trends -- It's still useful to think about archives and duplicates as separate, and essential, backup tasks. But beyond that, the range of ways in which backups can function is becoming much more interesting. I'd like to highlight a few of the recent trends I've noticed:

Trends I'd Like to See -- As delighted as I am to see progress and innovation in the world of Mac backup software, I'd like to see still more. In particular, there are a few areas that have received too little attention, and developers of backup software would do well to give them serious consideration.

I have no idea how long my list of Mac backup programs will eventually grow, though I truly hope not to see too many more additions. On the other hand, at the risk of sounding like I'm encouraging feature creep, I also hope very much to see some of the existing programs evolve to be more powerful and flexible under the hood, while at the same time acquiring simpler, more intuitive user interfaces. And developers: bonus points if you can do all this without messing up my tables again!