Leopard’s ‘Time Machine': David Pogue adds to the confusion

Posted by Pierre Igot in: Macintosh, Technology
August 11th, 2006 • 1:43 pm

This is the kind mainstream journalism about the Mac that is becoming more and more common and is quite irritating. In his post about Mac OS X 10.5 (Leopard) on his New York Times blog, veteran Mac columnist David Pogue writes:

Leopard will include an automatic, invisible, whole-computer backup system called Time Machine. In times of hard-drive failure or human error, it will let you rewind either your operating system or even individual documents and windows to earlier versions. Remember, fewer than five percent of us have automatic backup systems in place, so this is huge. Yes, I know there are certain third-party software programs that do something like this–there always are. But it’s quite another matter when it becomes part of the operating system.)

What irks me here is that David Pogue appears to suggest that, just by installing Mac OS X 10.5 on their Mac, Mac users will all of a sudden be protected against hard-drive failure. And this is simply untrue. Unless you purchase an external hard drive and set up Time Machine to do automatic backups of all your stuff on that external hard drive, Mac OS X 10.5 will not protect you against hard-drive failure in any way. If your Mac’s internal hard drive crashes, you’ll still lose everything, even with Time Machine.

Now, of course, David Pogue is not factually wrong. With the addition of an external hard drive, Time Machine will indeed protect you from hard-drive failures (or at least that’s what Apple’s preview of the feature suggests). But he’s guilty of failing to mention that crucial fact that an external hard drive will be required, thereby misleading many of his Mac-using readers.

And if David Pogue does it, you can be sure that a lot of other mainstream Mac writers will do the same thing. They will conveniently forget to mention that, without an external hard drive, Time Machine will have absolutely zero impact on your data’s safety in case of a hard crash, and that it is therefore doubtful that, without ubiquitous external hard drives, the feature in itself will have much impact in the real world.

OK, it will help protect you against human error—but even there, it remains to be seen how effective the feature will be. How many different versions of your documents will it archive? If you save your Word document every five minutes for five hours, will Time Machine keep 5x5x12 = 300 copies of the document on your hard drive? I somehow doubt it. So Time Machine will still have to be selective about what it keeps and what it discards. And I am not sure it’ll be smart enough to always keep what might really be needed.

In any case, the point here is that, once again, the mainstream Mac media fails to do its job and properly inform Mac users of the actual real-world value of Apple’s announcements, instead choosing to perpetuate that “reality-distortion field” of exaggerated hype that they themselves keep deriding elsewhere at the same time.


9 Responses to “Leopard’s ‘Time Machine': David Pogue adds to the confusion”

  1. ssp says:

    I also wonder what it means to ‘rewind an individual… window’.

    And I’m amused by him telling his readers to ‘remember’ a fact about just a fraction of them using automatic backups. A fact and number that he himself probably only learned when Mr. Jobs conveniently presented it to him earlier this week. Quite condescending if you asked me.

    But then again, who is David Pogue? Isn’t he just Apple’s employee at the NYT? I.e. the NYT’s Walt Mossberg? So why expect his presentation to be better than an Apple ad?

  2. Pierre Igot says:

    Pogue used to write somewhat entertaining and insightful columns for Macworld. I guess I expected a bit better from him, even after all these years. As a Mac tech support person, I have seen too many people lose tons of data because of hard-drive failure. I guess Pogue doesn’t see enough of those anymore.

  3. danridley says:

    Among my clients and friends, external hard drives for backup are pretty ubiquitous. Of home users that I know, easily 80% have an external hard drive for backup, and most of them don’t use it as well as they could.

    Time Machine won’t do diddly for you if you don’t devote an entire disk to it; you get no human-error protection with a single drive.

    Re 300 copies: Gleaned from screenshots: if you check the box to turn it on (and give it a drive), but don’t configure anything else, it will back up changed files nightly at midnight. You can configure this down to hourly, or set it to “Automatic,” which presumably increments the backup on every save.

    The screenshots show an easy way to exclude folders (like the Spotlight preference pane, just drop in the folders to exclude) but I didn’t see any indication that you can tweak settings per-folder (i.e., back up music weekly and my text files on every save).

    ssp: while the particular figure Pogue pulled out was Jobs’ figure from the keynote, I don’t think it’s unfair to ask users to “remember” that most people don’t back up often enough or effectively enough. Most people know that (because most people are guilty as charged).

    Harris Interactive found in 2005 that of the 65 percent of people who backed up (ever), 76% of those backed up once a month or less. That leaves 15.6 percent of the total backing up at least once a month, which jibes pretty well with Jobs’ “less than a quarter.” (Harris didn’t break down figures further to say how many of those 15.6 percent backed up automatically, vs. dragging stuff to CDs or the like, but more than once a month.)

    Another figure I think is interesting from the Harris survey is the reasons people don’t back up: 44% said it was because the process was too technical for them, and only 14% said it was because the backup devices were too costly. I think that indicates a solid market for a solution like Time Machine, even with the drive requirement.

  4. sjk says:

    Re 300 copies: Gleaned from screenshots: if you check the box to turn it on (and give it a drive), but don’t configure anything else, it will back up changed files nightly at midnight. You can configure this down to hourly, or set it to “Automatic,” which presumably increments the backup on every save.

    Sounds like the “Automatic” setting might make it possible to recover data immediately after it’s been deleted? Otherwise, I’m guessing Time Machine can only recover data that’s been (semi-)permanently preserved during a scheduled backup run. If files are modified dozens of times between backup runs only the final versions are saved during the scheduled backup; any intermediate changes are lost unless (possibly) “Automatic” is used.

  5. ssp says:

    I do think it’s unfair to ask general users to remember anything about backups. Most of them won’t even know what you’re talking about.

  6. AlanY says:

    ssp, re: your comment about not knowing what “rewind an individual… window” means, watch the Time Machine demo video from WWDC. You can actually invoke Time Machine on an application Window like iPhoto, and Time Machine comes alive from within the iPhoto UI, showing previous versions of your library directly inside iPhoto, just as it looked before you deleted those files. This “deep” UI is where Time Machine is somewhat different than Windows 2003/Vista’s version of this same multiple versioning feature. I wonder how much effort all this will take for developers to support. It’s a nifty UI, but very baroque.

  7. sjk says:

    Well, I think Time Machine at least has some potential to get more users to care about backups. Especially if it’s relatively easy for them to recover partial subsets of data, like address book entries or iPhoto images, without futzing around with specific files. Restoring an entire system might still be tricky for novices to do reliably.

  8. Paul Ingraham says:

    sjk: Agreed, system restoration probably won’t be easy for novices. No UI is good enough to guide you through hard drive replacement! :-) Forstall glibly blew past that point, as though replacing a hard drive is something the average iMac user does in his sleep.

    ssp: Agreeing again: the average user is blissfully unaware of the importance of backups. Ironically, this is precisely because Apple has spent its corporate life trying to convince the world that Mac’s “just work.” Here’s a theory…

    Almost everything Apple does practically screams of denial that their products are actually fallible and that your data might actually need to be backed up. They may pay lip service to the importance of backing up, but they will never say why, and they certainly didn’t say why in the WWDC keynote. iPhoto crashed on Forstall, for instance, and I give him credit for wishing out loud for a time machine: but he didn’t say, and he never would say, “And that’s exactly why you need to backup — because iPhoto is a work in progress.”

    Jobs and his veeps are never candid about product issues in any of their public appearances. Jobs in particular is exclusively positive instead. Have you ever heard him say that Apple “fixed” something? In fact, Apple doesn’t even publish publicly available release notes detailing bug fixes, for instance, probably because that would be an acknowledgement that “the last insanely great thing” was actually buggy.

    And there’s more. Apple’s style of software development is paternalistic, app-o-centric and pretty much built to discourage the novice from thinking that anything could ever go wrong with data, or in fact that there even is such a thing as data. “We will make a beautiful photo program that will do everything to do with photos. And you won’t ask any questions. Or look for your files. Or try to do anything with photos anywhere else… no, don’t touch that, just touch the pretty buttons!” (Yet in my immediate family, three of four copies of the original iPhoto trashed their libraries asymptomatically, corrupting them for weeks before discovery, rendering even archival backups nearly useless.)

    Even Apple documentation reeks of a reassuring, perhaps stupefying, subtext. It usually reads more like a press release than technical documentation, “This product does really great things. Trust us. In fact, it’s so insanely great and user friendly that you don’t really need documentation. Go back to the user interface and just think hard about what you want to do. Don’t worry, the program will actually read your mind, and it certainly won’t @#!!$@% up your data.” Hence an entire industry of Mac books, including the tellingly titled “Missing Manuals” series!

    Yes, Apple has convinced a lot of novice users (especially switchers?) that we don’t need to backup, because Macs are virtually infallible… which is probably a large part of the reason why the backup stats are as bad as they are.

    AlanY: Love your apt characterization of the Time Machine UI: “baroque.” Nicely put.

  9. Chad Capellman says:

    David Pogue spoke at some length about using Time Machine during his appearance at Macworld for the Missing Manuals book series. A transcribed video of that part of his talk as well as several others can be found at http://missingmanuals.com/dpmw08/leopard_time_machine.csp

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