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Apple Needs Public Betas for Mac OS X

It’s unlikely that we’ll see a Mac OS X 10.6.9, given the nearness of Mac OS X 10.7 Lion’s release, but if Apple were to release 10.6.9, I would be forced to recommend that TidBITS readers not install it immediately. After all, both 10.6.7 and 10.6.8 introduced entirely new problems that affected large numbers of people while resolving extremely specific bugs that likely affected only a small set of the user base.

That’s unlike Apple. Although there have been exceptions, Mac OS X releases have, for the most part, been either positive steps forward or at least neutral. As a result, I’ve had little reason to recommend extreme caution when upgrading. Early upgrades — the 10.x.1 and 10.x.2 releases — generally address common bugs and problems and are thus worth getting quickly. And later upgrades — those that come after 10.x.5 — are largely aimed at mopping up highly particular problems and lurking infelicities, and seldom introduce new problems.

So what explains the font problems in 10.6.7 that forced the Snow Leopard Font Update (see “Apple Releases Snow Leopard Font Update,” 26 April 2011), or the printing problems in 10.6.8 that are currently best addressed by replacing four Unix applications with their previous versions (see “Mac OS X 10.6.8 Suffers Printing and Audio Problems,” 1 July 2011)? Are Apple’s testers just getting sloppy? Are they too focused on testing Lion to give sufficient attention to Snow Leopard? What about developers? Perhaps they too have been more focused on developer previews of 10.7 than on new versions of 10.6?

Or maybe this is part of the price of success? What if these problems are directly related to the ever-increasing popularity of the Mac and the concomitant growth of the surrounding industry of software and hardware manufacturers? And, of course, to Apple maintaining this growth over the last 10+ years, which has given us not just multiple generations of software and hardware, but an expanding number of professional users who rely on their Macs for day-to-day work.

In short, perhaps the entire Mac ecosystem has grown so large that it has exceeded Apple’s internal ability to test sufficiently against the myriad real-world configurations that have sprung from each and every Macintosh purchase. And, I would argue, even if Apple doesn’t target the Mac at the enterprise market, the consequences of introduced bugs have more of an impact on professionals than ever before, simply due to the increased number of people relying on the Mac for their livelihoods.

What then is the solution? Certainly, Apple could just employ more testers and move more cautiously with Mac OS X releases. Or we users could attempt to hold developers responsible for better testing — it’s somewhat troubling that both Parallels and PGP failed to discover and address (either in code or with communication) their conflicts with 10.6.8 before it shipped.

But neither of these solutions is satisfying. Apple can’t possibly test every conceivable user configuration, nor would we want the company to delay necessary fixes for obsessive testing. And yes, it would be nice if developers did a better job of testing too, but all developers have limited resources to devote to the task.

I propose a more modern, democratic solution: public betas of interim Mac OS X releases, starting with 10.7.1. As much as I know the very concept goes against Apple’s secretive, controlling grain, I think the company should consider it.

[Update: In fact, as I’ve learned from some of the comments on this article, Apple actually has a program somewhat along these lines. Called AppleSeed, it’s an invitation-only program that enables everyday users to test pre-release versions of Apple software and provide Apple with feedback. From what I can tell (and what I read in this recent Ars Technica article) it’s almost entirely secret, though, so it’s unclear how it compares with what I suggest below, and the simple fact of the matter is that, just like Apple’s internal testing and developer testing, it failed to bring the problems that plagued 10.6.7 and 10.6.8 to the forefront.]

Of course, I’d hope Apple would do a better job than many other companies that do public betas. For instance:

  • The option to get public betas should be something that the user sets in Software Update, so participating in a public beta doesn’t require users to waste time manually downloading and installing. This is just respect for your testers — let them focus their time on actual testing, rather than fussing with manual installations.

  • For those who install the public betas, there should be an option to revert to the previous installed version, and to the current shipping version. That way, if a user installs a public beta and discovers a bug that prevents everyday usage, she can revert easily to a functional version of the operating system. Again, such a feature acknowledges that testers are donating their time, and if a beta is harming their ability to earn a living, it should be easy to return a Mac to a functional state.

    (In fact, now that I think of it, Software Update should work with Time Machine to create a snapshot of the operating system before installing an update for all users, so if a user experiences problems, reverting is merely a matter of clicking a button in Software Update. Although I’ve not seen this personally, my understanding is that Windows has long had a feature like this. In an involved Twitter conversation, TidBITS friend Andrew Laurence suggested that this is actually the key thing for Apple to work on, since he felt a public beta program wouldn’t serve Apple’s interests, whereas the capability to revert from a troublesome update would help everyone.)

  • Once a public beta is installed, a Submit Bug Report item should appear in the Apple menu. Choosing it should display a form that helps users make useful reports; it could even be an assistant that walks the user through several screens, collecting information about the problem in each one. Those bug reports, along with automatically collected logs, should go directly into Apple’s internal bug report database. Currently, the only way to report bugs is via Bug Reporter, a clumsy Web-based system that feels as though it hasn’t been updated in at least 5 years.

  • I don’t have a suggestion of how this could best be done (iTunes gift cards? Hardware discounts?) but Apple should reward users who consistently submit helpful and accurate bug reports. It’s a small thing, but when a large company like Apple acknowledges individual assistance, as in the credit for reporting security vulnerabilities, it goes a long way.

  • One final thought. Especially now that Apple IDs are required to purchase Mac OS X Lion, Apple could open up a private discussion forum for those participating in the public beta program, which would enable people to figure out whether any problems they were seeing were more widespread. I have no idea if Apple’s discussion software would support this, but it would be extremely cool to give users a rating based on how many good bugs they’d reported.

Again, the very concept of allowing users to see betas of Mac OS X goes against Apple’s desire to control the message, but as far as I can tell, Apple isn’t enforcing its developer non-disclosure agreements at all — many Web sites are now publishing NDA-covered information about Lion with impunity. So perhaps Apple doesn’t care about technical details leaking out, and with small updates like 10.7.1, it’s not as though there would be any damage to Apple’s competitive position if someone were to discover that a particular bug has been fixed or some other problem has been introduced.

And, on the plus side, releasing public betas could significantly improve customer confidence in Apple’s ability to provide a solid operating system. It takes a long time to win trust that can be lost nearly instantly, and the last two releases of Snow Leopard have distinctly hurt Apple’s reputation.

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