Mac OS X’s Software Update: Wants iPod updaters that I don’t need

Posted by Pierre Igot in: Macintosh
April 7th, 2006 • 2:29 pm

I realize that no software update scheme can probably be smart enough to adapt to the needs of each and every individual Mac user.

For example, I suppose that there really is no way for Mac OS X to tell whether I actually need the “J2SE 5.0 Release 3” update or not. It’s a hefty 43 MB download, and I am certainly not going to bother downloading and installing it in the near future, given that I rarely ever use Java applications on my Macintosh, and that I am on a dial-up Internet connection.

I regularly go to a place with broadband access to the Internet to download large files, and I suppose that I will remember to download it and install it one of these days. But really, I have no incentive to do so. On the contrary, in light of Apple’s less-than-perfect track record when it comes to seemingly innocuous software updates actually breaking things that were working fine until then, I am somewhat justified, I believe, in viewing such software updates as unnecessary.

But I suppose that there really is no way for Mac OS X to guess this for each and every piece of Apple software that might be relevant to me.

There is one recurring thing in Mac OS X’s Software Update, however, that I do find particularly annoying. It is the fact that it constantly wants me to download the latest iPod updater.

Yes, I do have an iPod. I have two, actually, since my wife’s iPod mini gets its load of music from my iTunes library. So Mac OS X is correct in keeping track of iPod software updates for me.

The thing is that it does so in a very indiscriminate fashion. Surely by now Mac OS X should know which models of iPod I have. Yet each and every time a new iPod Software Updater comes out, Software Update says that I need it. I just downloaded the latest one (the 2006-03-23 version), I installed it, and I launched it, and… it just told me that my iPod photo was already up-to-date!

I tried my wife’s iPod mini and I got the same message. My wife’s iPod is already up-to-date as well. In other words, the iPod Updater 2006-03-23 does not apply to either of my iPods.

So why on earth does Software Update insist that I download it and install it?

This is a rather brain-dead behaviour. Surely Mac OS X should be able to keep track of which iPod models I am using, and not invite me to download software updates that are irrelevant. After all, if I have GarageBand 2.0 installed on my machine, Mac OS X does not invite me to download the GarageBand 3.0.1 updater. It knows that I only have GarageBand 2.0, and only mentions the updates that are relevant to me.

Why can’t it do the same for my iPods?

There are, in fact, other problems with Apple’s iPod software update process. There is the fact that Apple insists on installing the updater inside a subfolder in the “Utilities” folder inside the startup volume’s “Applications” folder. This means that, whenever you do a clean install of Mac OS X, Software Update asks you to reinstall the iPod software updater, even though your iPod (which wasn’t affected by the clean install, after all) is actually already up-to-date because you already applied the software update to it.

In other words, Mac OS X makes no effort to actually check the software version that is on the iPod itself. All it does is check to see which version of the updater is in the “iPod Software Updater” folder and, if that folder is not there or contains an older updater, it invites you to update it, even if your iPod doesn’t require it.

There’s something fundamentally flawed in this mechanism. Mac OS X should be smart enough to check the software version on the iPod itself. If it encounters an iPod which is not up-to-date, then at that point it makes sense to invite the user to download the update. But not in any other situation.

Finally, I cannot help but mention the rather frustrating approach used by Apple to make its iPod software updaters available on its web site. Instead of just making the download available directly on a web page, Apple actually forces you to through a registration/login process with an Apple ID, as if it had to somehow protect itself from people who might want to illegally download a software updater that they are not entitled to!

This kind of approach might make sense in the case of a software product. But with hardware, I don’t really see the point. If I actually have a physical piece of hardware in my hands, the obvious assumption is that it is my own legitimate unit and I should be able to download the latest software update for it directly. The software update will not be any use to me if I don’t have an iPod. So what exactly is the problem with letting me freely download the software update anonymously through a regular web page?

I also find it quite remarkable that Apple’s main web page for the iPod does not have a link to the latest software update. The only thing it has is a “Download” button in the top-left corner and that button takes you to… the download page for iTunes!

If you want to find the latest iPod software update, you actually have to go to the “Support” section first, and then to the “Downloads” section, and then find the latest software update somewhere in the list!

So on the one hand, Mac OS X’s Software Update mechanism wants you to download iPod software updaters that you don’t need, and on the other hand if you decide that you need to download an iPod software update by yourself, Apple makes it particularly difficult to do so.

This is all quite absurd, and not worthy of a company that prides itself on being the leader in ease of use and intuitiveness.

5 Responses to “Mac OS X’s Software Update: Wants iPod updaters that I don’t need”

  1. Andrew Aitken says:

    OS X can only reliably know what version of the iPod software you need if you have the iPod plugged in at the time you check for updates. If you own more than one iPod this could be problematic. How annoying would it be to have to plug in your iPod in order to run a software update? Even worse, how many people might miss an iPod update because they never thought to plug it in when they ran software update?

    In those cases, the minor inconvenience of hitting ‘delete’ to remove it from your list of updates isn’t too much hassle :)

    I have to regularly download updates for customers and put them on CD – Apple seem to have been moving in the wrong direction with recent updates. Final Cut Express requires s/n confirmation to download, and a lot of other updates require an Apple ID too. It’s still not as bad as some other companies (Extensis and Adobe, I’m looking at you…) – but they are heading in the wrong direction.

    On a side note, these updates are getting ridiculously huge… 27.6Mb for an iPod update is silly. It must be hellish to still be on dialup!

  2. Pierre Igot says:

    Andrew, it seems quite obvious to me that Mac OS X could keep track of my iPods so that it knows which models I have used at the time Software Update is run. Then if I plug in a new iPod it can always add it to the list to check for next time, or even do a check from within iTunes right when I plug it in.

    I really don’t see what’s preventing Apple from making Mac OS X a bit smarter here. This is what computers are supposed to be for. You know, track the details and do the easy work for us.

    I don’t download any of these big updates over dial-up, but it is really getting a bit ridiculous. I guess there’s just not much will to accommodate dial-up users at Apple anymore.

  3. danridley says:

    As a broadband early adopter who’s sitting on an 8Mb connection right now, and who hasn’t used a modem in seven years — maybe more — I realize that my perspective is skewed. But here’s my take: a significant part of the iPod’s mystique and success comes from the It Just Works factor. Firmware updates are sometimes required to support new features from iTunes upgrades or Music Store updates. Therefore, if you go to the store and buy a new iPod, it’s in the best interest of your out-of-box experience to have the firmware upgrade sitting ready on your computer.

    (I’d make essentially the same argument for AirPort firmware and drivers on non-AirPort-equipped machines, as well.)

    On my connection, this is no bigger a deal than, say, an iSync update that only adds support for devices I don’t have. I realize there’s at least a factor-of-10 difference in size, though, and of course that matters if you’re not blessed with good broadband.

  4. Pierre Igot says:

    I agree that the problem is obviously less significant for broadband users—one day, one day, I will finally get access to broadband service!

    I guess my main issue is with the fact that the process is so dumb. Plus I don’t know if the actual upgrading process itself (installing the updater first, and then finding it in the Utilities folder and running it) is particularly user-friendly either… So if we’re talking about a great ‘out-of-box’ experience, there’s still quite a bit of work to do :).

  5. danridley says:

    If your iPod firmware is out of date, iTunes will prompt you to run the updater. (“iTunes has detected a software update for the iPod “Dan’s Shuffle”. Would you like to install it now?”)

    There’s a screenshot on Apple’s support site, near the bottom of the linked article. (I think it says Yes/No now, like it should, rather than OK/Cancel as that screenshot shows.)

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