Shattered Mac illusions

I have been Macified. After not owning a Macintosh for more than 12 years I finally decided that the undeniable coolness and beauty of the hardware and particularly of OS X meant that it was time to get religion!

The beast, which arrived a couple of weeks ago, is a Power Mac G5 with dual 2-GHz processors and 1.5G bytes of RAM running OS X Tiger. What a gorgeous piece of engineering! It is an elegant design even under the hood: When you need to take off the side to, for example, add extra RAM, one latch frees the panel. And all the subsystems are plug-ins, making it incredibly easy to work on. Heaven.


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Then when you run up OS X, again, wow. The operating system has a remarkable polish - just as if someone had thought about the design as a whole rather than finding and assembling a collection of spare parts and forcing them to fly in formation.

Anyway, back to the Macification: First I fooled around checking out all the cool new features. Tiger has a lot of really well-implemented new stuff that makes it significantly more powerful.

Next I decided to load my photographs into iPhoto. My photo collection is fairly large, weighing in at 14,618 files for a total of 18.7G bytes.

I copied the files to the Mac from my Windows desktop, an XP system that is misbehaving to the point where it is time to wipe it and start again. <digression> It is amazing that XP systems can get to a condition where it is easier to erase and re-install everything than diagnose and fix what's wrong. </digression>

So now that I had the image files on the Mac I could start loading them into iPhoto. All seemed to go well with iPhoto doing its indexing and thumbnailing, then it finished - crash.

I restarted iPhoto. The program ran for a couple of minutes then, thud! I re-imported the photos. IPhoto finished the import, stayed up again for a couple of minutes, then thud. In the middle of this the 10.4.1 release of OS X came out, which apparently included some iPhoto improvements, but nothing I could find mentioned the problems I was seeing. I applied the upgrade and resorted to clearing out about 5,000 pictures and iPhoto seemed to become stable again.

Now, let's review: This was a brand-new machine, the system detected no problems and iPhoto hadn't been used before, but handling just less than 15,000 images made it blow up. And I thought Mac applications were generally considered to be better than Windows applications. Evidently this is not the case.

According to discussions I've had on lists and in Apple forums, there's no obvious explanation for my problems with iPhoto. According to Gary Stock, CTO of Exfacto: "From a Mac perspective, the surprising part is that iPhoto even tried, rather than warning you when you crossed some threshold or advising you to reduce the dataset."

Exactly! Which makes me think the problem is more fundamental than bad error-handling in the application, unless you are willing to believe that Apple's programmers are not very skilled.

From my experiences with Windows and now OS X, maybe when it comes to sophisticated, multimedia applications it doesn't matter what platform we're using. It may be the case that humans are not capable of creating stable software for the level of complexity required.

Maybe there's a sort of code-complexity limit that we have crossed in the latest generations of computer systems that makes software stability probabilistic rather than deterministic. If so, it makes for some interesting implications for systems engineering.

To begin with, managing systems in the future might be more like psychiatry than programming.

Despite these snafus I still love the Mac. It is just that my illusions are shattered.

Condolences to backspin@gibbs.com. Check out Gearblog while you're at it.

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