Monday, August 31, 2020

Is macOS Becoming Unmaintainable?

Howard Oakley:

There’s one big snag with Catalina’s ingenious linkage of System and Data volumes into a Volume Group: when anything goes wrong, the only option seems to be to wipe them both and start again. I’ve heard of a steady succession of users who’ve been caught by this, most commonly when trying to re-install earlier releases of Catalina.


Apple doesn’t provide a full suite of maintenance and repair tools for APFS and its volumes. Third-parties have been prevented from doing so because Apple has still not provided documentation more than a year after developers first started using macOS Catalina. All this changes again with the arrival of Big Sur and its Sealed System Volume, where the contents of the system are contain in a special snapshot which is cryptographically sealed and mounted read-only. I can see a lot of users having to perform repeated clean re-installs of macOS 11.0 because there are simply no other options.

Howard Oakley (Hacker News):

Apple has long taken pride that “it just works”, but seems to have convinced itself that is inviolate fact, and has become unable to consider what happens when it stops working.

The long-running saga of failed EFI firmware updates is a case in point.


Indications are that Catalina’s boot Volume Group was designed without consideration of maintenance procedures which could address that type of problem, and the current solution has only evolved during Catalina’s release cycle, in the last few months.


Once again, no one seems to have considered the problems which can be caused by orphaned snapshots, so they’re a key macOS feature which is essentially unmaintainable by macOS and its supporting toolset.

Update (2020-09-02): See also: Accidental Tech Podcast (John’s Mac Pro Tale of Woe).

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Anyone noticed you can't create a Disk Image of an APFS partition in Disk Utility? And Arm Macs are going to use SMB instead of giving you direct access to the harddisk. This gives me the impression Apple wants to force everyone's personal data into iCloud. You know, and pay Apple a subscription fee to access your own data.

"The major difference between a thing that might go wrong and a thing that cannot possibly go wrong is that when a thing that cannot possibly go wrong goes wrong it usually turns out to be impossible to get at and repair." -- Douglas Adams

And Apple completely ignores most Mac bug reports in my experience. They might as well not have a bug reporting system. I still have unresolved bugs from 5+ years ago. Only the bugs which are reported in the media or which cause major data loss / unbootable systems for a large subset of users actually get fixed. There are UI bugs all over the place these days, and those are ostensibly the easiest types of bugs to fix -- it's like nobody at Apple cares anymore (look at the site for some ridiculous examples). Unfortunately, Big Sur looks like it's going to make everything significantly worse.

Despite how often they claim otherwise it's obvious that their true desire is to turn OS X into the desktop version of iOS (locked down, limited, with Apple taking a tax in as many ways as possible). OS X is no longer the market leader that it once was. Apple abandoned education, most pro audio stuff works the same (or better) on Windows, and a lot of tech software / hardware either doesn't support Mac at all or does so reluctantly (usually with a bad ported app). It's sad, the Mac could have had it all if Apple hadn't let it wither on the vine for so long.

Hmm. John Siracusa had a section at the end of the last Accidental Tech Podcast episode about this exact problem, and he was still confident that he'd be able to find a way to preserve his Data volume in a new install, I wonder what the follow up is going to look like this week. And on a side note, the initial problem he was facing was because of a buggy BridgeOS update.

@modulusshift Howard’s second post says that “John” told him this was possible, but he doesn’t say how to do it.

Correction: I meant to write "Arm Macs are going to use SMB *for Target Disk Mode*"

Sure enough, John Siracusa updated in today’s episode, and the fix Howard notes as “thanks to John” is what he did. Namely, deleting the rest of the volume group except for Data and reinstalling the OS with Data as the installation target. This is very much still a power-user-level solution to this problem, though, it took John a couple tries to figure out exactly how to coax the installer to do what he needed.

This far into the underpinnings of the OS, the solutions really should just work.

What John's story tells me is not only that Apple's software is becoming hard to diagnose (nothing new there), but that there's a bit of a design flaw here.

We already saw that in early Big Sur betas with the changes to APFS (but they've apparently rectified that in… 10.15.6?), and now we're seeing it with bridgeOS.

Not entirely avoidable, but still quite a bummer. I'd love to try out new Apple OSes, but it's already annoying and risky that you can't dual-boot your iPhone or iPad. The Mac you _can_ dual-boot, but what use is that if there's a significant chance that the beta OS will affect the non-beta OS anyway?

FWIW, I'm really glad that SOMEONE(S) at Apple (no jabs this time) are pushing updates to Catalina.

I waited pretty much until now to install Catalina and while the data loss bugs were dealt with, there's still one kernel panic that I run into from time to time that I send in. I anticipate doing the same with Big Sur or maybe even not taking Big Sur ever, or going to "PPC 2.0" ever. I simply don't need it/them.

iOS is another matter, if Catalina will service iOS 14 (right now iMazing WiFi nightly backups) then I see no issue there. But I'll wait for general release and reports first.

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