mac.column.ted: What you won't find in Leopard

The most requested fixes that didn't make it into this upgrade.

Ted Landau
October 2007

As I write this, the release of Mac OS X 10.5 (aka Leopard) is only 48 hours away. The anticipation among Mac users is mounting as they eagerly await the arrival of Time Machine, Spaces, Boot Camp and the assortment of more than 300 other new features. Those of us with a special interest in troubleshooting can especially look forward to the redesigned interfaces for file sharing, firewalls, and network settings?as well as new options for Accounts settings, an intriguing new utility called Instruments, and much more.

I'll be offering my take on all of this in my next column. For today, I want to focus on something you will not see in Leopard.

We all know that a major update to Mac OS X brings with it new headaches as well as new features. Inevitably, there are new bugs that need to be addressed. That's why it is a certainty that Apple engineers are already hard at work on Mac OS X 10.5.1. You can expect it to be released before the end of the year.

What is less talked about are persistent bugs or interface annoyances that have existed across the past several iterations of Mac OS X and never wind up getting addressed. This remains the case with Leopard. Let me further zero in on one category of this issue: situations where Mac OS X offers little or no advice on what is wrong, even though it ought to be able to do so. Here are two examples:

"In use" errors. We have all seen these error messages at some point or another. You go to empty the Trash and a message pops up that says: "The operation cannot be completed because the item 'name of item' is in use." Or you attempt to eject a disk, but instead get a message that says the disk cannot be ejected because it too is "in use."

Experienced Mac users often know what needs to be done. For documents in the Trash, for example, the problem is typically that the document is still open. Close the document and the Trash can empty. In a few cases, you may also have to quit the application that had opened the document. For disks that don't eject or disk images that don't unmount, the cause is usually a similar one: some application or document on the volume remains open. Close whatever is that is open and the operation should succeed.

Unfortunately, not every user is an experienced Mac user. Even worse, there are occasions where the above advice still does not lead to success. You close everything you can think of (including quitting the Finder, for those users that know how to do this) but the error persists. In desperation, you start closing the windows in your house, but this too as no apparent effect.

At this point, about the only thing that is sure to work is to log out of your account or, in the most extreme cases, restart your Mac. But this is a time-wasting hassle that you would much rather avoid if you could. So why can't Mac OS X provide a solution that avoids this waste of time?

At the very least, Mac OS X could provide more informed guidance as to the precise cause of its refusal to cooperate and what you need to do to gain its cooperation. For example, instead of saying that the item is in use, and little else, why can't the Mac say something more like: "Quit Microsoft Word and I'll let you empty the Trash." Or, for the even more mysterious causes of a disc that will not eject, how about saying something like: "Quit DVD Player and the Installer utility and the disk image will unmount."

The Mac can do all sorts of amazing things, including time travel if you upgrade to Leopard. Providing more specifics about why the Trash can't be emptied ought to be child's play by comparison.

Another situation where this problem sometimes crops up is after updating third party software. What happens is that some of the files that were deleted as part of the upgrade are now in the Trash, but they continue to run in the background. There is no way to quit them (short of using Terminal or Activity Monitor). The result is that, for most users, until they log out and log back in, those items cannot be removed from the Trash. Nor will the updated application work properly. Typically, the software updater warns you about this and instructs you to log out. But there ought to be a simpler solution. Why can't Mac OS X find a way to handle this that does not require either logging out or using technical software that most Mac users don't even know are on their drive?

Sleepless in California. Another persistent problem has been even more frustrating, at least for me, because I still can't identify the precise cause: When I select to put my Power Mac to sleep, it often has other plans. It initially complies with my request and does go to sleep. About a second later, however, it re-awakens and is ready for action. This happens almost every day! The only good news is that if I immediately select the Sleep command a second time, the Mac now cooperates?but only after a much longer delay before finally going to sleep.

Given that I did nothing in between the two sleep requests, it's hard to understand why the first attempt failed and the second one succeeded. Apple does have a Knowledge Base article that covers some of this territory. But none of its advice is specific to my instant wake-from-sleep problem. I've checked everything I could think of, including Console logs, and still have been unable to determine a precise cause. Neither have I found a way prevent it from happening each day. It appears to be something specific to my Power Mac (or the software on it) because it does not happen with any of my other Macs. But I don't have the patience to slog through a trial-and-error search for what the specific something might be.

Here again, it seems to me that the Mac ought to be able to provide more guidance. Somewhere deep in the Mac OS X system monitoring, there must be some awareness of why my Mac immediately re-awakened. Why can't the Mac uses its intelligence to inform the user as to what happened and (more importantly) what needs to be done to stop it from happening again?

A better tool. Speaking of Apple's Knowledge Base articles, here's a final suggestion (I believe I offered a similar idea several years ago, but Apple has so far not taken my advice): How about providing a troubleshooting utility that performs many of the more involved solutions in the Knowledge Base? As it stands now, if you have a problem, you first have to search the Knowledge Base (assuming you even know to do this) and hope that you entered the appropriate keywords to come up with the answer. Then, you may discover that the solution requires manipulating arcane System files or working with Terminal. Wouldn't be great if Apple offered a utility (perhaps similar to how Apple's Network Diagnostics works) that walked you through a host of potential symptoms and, after identifying the problem, automatically performed the needed actions described in the Knowledge Base?so that you didn't have to do it all yourself?

It would be great. But you won't be seeing this utility in Leopard. And I have no reason to expect to see it in the next big cat to come out of Cupertino's jungle. But I don't want to sound too grumpy here. Leopard is about to break out of its cage. The Mac market share is on the rise. The iPhone is a big success. There's a lot to celebrate.

To send comments regarding this column directly to Ted, click here. To get Ted's latest book, Take Control of Troubleshooting your iPhone, click here.

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