This article originally appeared in TidBITS on 2015-12-10 at 1:10 p.m.
The permanent URL for this article is: http://tidbits.com/article/16146
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Dealing with Inexplicable Apple Error Messages

by Adam C. Engst

One of the downsides of the increasingly complex and cloud-based Mac and iOS ecosystem is that many problems, particularly those that originate in the ether or deep in an operating system, are out of your control. At such times, it’s mostly helpful to know that you’re not alone, you’ve done nothing wrong, and you can’t do anything to resolve the problem. Asking for confirmation of some unexpected message or behavior is a perfect use for the likes of Twitter and Facebook, or mailing lists like TidBITS Talk [1].

As an example, one morning a few weeks ago, my iPhone 6 required that I enter my passcode to unlock it, rather than taking my fingerprint via Touch ID. The screen said that Touch ID requires the passcode after 48 hours, and in fact, I’ve seen that message on my iPad Air 2 repeatedly, since I often go several days without picking it up. But I’d unlocked the iPhone with Touch ID the evening before, as I was going to bed, so it had been only about 8 hours since the last usage, not 48 hours. Happily, the iPhone took my passcode and unlocked properly, so it was merely a curiosity, not an inconvenience.

[image link] [2]

I posted the screenshot to my various social media accounts and got a bunch of people saying that they’d experienced the same thing, confirming that I wasn’t alone. A few folks thought that Touch ID asks for the passcode every 48 hours regardless, but I suspect they’re just seeing iOS’s incorrect behavior more often, since Apple is clear about how it should appear only if you haven’t unlocked your device [3] in more than 48 hours. Some people said they were being asked for the passcode nearly every day.

After initial publication of this article, I’ve heard from a number of people who are suffering from this problem, with a twist: the keypad doesn’t respond to taps while in this state. The elephant-gun solution is to hold down both the Home and Sleep/Wake buttons until the iPhone restarts, but TidBITS reader Marc Zeedar noted that he has been able to make the keypad respond again by pressing the Sleep/Wake button to lock the screen, and then waking it back up again. It sometimes takes a couple of tries, but it’s still faster than a restart.

I haven’t been able to determine why this is happening, but for me it has been only a minor irritation. That’s because I’m technically proficient and relaxed about errors that don’t cause data loss, but I am concerned that inexplicable behavior like this could start to undermine an inexperienced user’s trust in iOS as a predictable, reliable system — Touch ID is in essence lying to the user through this error message. Technically there’s no real damage here, but psychologically, it’s a bad thing — it’s important for interfaces to communicate clearly, accurately, and reliably to build user trust.

OS X isn’t immune from this sort of problem either. Over the last few days, iTunes has started to throw an error saying that it cannot connect to Store Purchases, potentially due to a firewall misconfiguration. Again, I’m not alone in this — a number of people have been asking about it on TidBITS Talk as well.

[image link] [4]

In this case, I don’t believe iTunes is lying, but at least for me, the error dialog has appeared on its own, not in response to any action I’ve initiated. And, of course, I haven’t changed anything on my Mac or my network in terms of firewall software, so I’m sure this isn’t related to anything I’ve done or could resolve [5]. The problem undoubtedly originates somewhere on Apple’s servers, and while lots of people are seeing the error message, it hasn’t warranted mention on Apple’s System Status page [6]. That page is always worth checking if you’re having trouble with Apple’s online services.

Similarly, as a number of people noted after this article was published initially, it’s not uncommon for a dialog to ask for your iCloud password after you restart your Mac, sometimes repeatedly. What I really hate is when Messages and FaceTime ask not for my iCloud password, since I have two-step verification turned on, but for an app-specific password, which I have of course given them in the past. If you’re running into this problem after restart and see no reason why you should be prompted for your password, my advice is to click the Cancel button (or press Escape) to dismiss the password request, perhaps even a couple of times. Once things have settled down after startup, if you’re still getting the requests, enter your iCloud password. Only occasionally have I had to recreate app-specific passwords for Messages and FaceTime; most of the time they realize that they’re already authenticated after a bit.

I’m quite perturbed about these random password requests, because they train users to enter their passwords even when no action has been taken to prompt the request. That’s terrible from a security perspective — users should be asked for passwords infrequently enough that they should be a little suspicious if a request comes at an odd time or without a good reason.

Again, if you’re seeing these errors, you’re not alone, you’ve done nothing wrong, and you can’t do anything to resolve the problem. Your best course of action is to shrug, move past the error, and get on with your day. I sincerely hope Apple’s engineers are working to fix these problems, minor as they are, so they stop wasting our time and smudging Apple’s reputation for quality software.

[1]: http://tidbits.com/mailman/listinfo/tidbits-talk/
[2]: http://tidbits.com/resources/2015-12/TouchID-lies.png
[3]: https://support.apple.com/en-us/HT201371
[4]: http://tidbits.com/resources/2015-12/iTunes-Store-Purchases-error.png
[5]: https://support.apple.com/en-us/HT201400
[6]: https://www.apple.com/support/systemstatus/