Is Mac OS X Becoming Crufty?

Update: Please check the follow-up article before posting more comments along the lines of "but a clean install always works", etc.

With Safari blowing up on me every time my web server squirts some funny Ajax on it, iPhoto exiting when I rotate a photo and taking ages to even acknowledge that I have switched to another folder, I guess it's time to take a hard look at how things are going.

Two years ago, all of my Macs worked flawlessly. And by flawlessly I mean that, despite the relative shortcomings of that epoch's standard applications, they were fast and very seldom crashed - about the only thing I had occasional trouble with was the Finder, and kernel crashes were roughly one a year per box (and usually related to funky peripherals).

Now, in this exciting year of the Tiger, a bunch of strange ailments has started affecting my machines. All three of them.

The Unusual Stuff

Besides the amazingly poor job done in and things like the tremendously irritating "Copy this Link" bug in Safari (which still isn't fixed in 10.4.2, and that actually copies the link text and not the URL), I have also experienced vanishing contacts in the Address Book - although, unlike Davi's, mine reappeared after relaunching the app.

A minor note on the "Copy Link" thing: Pick any link on this page. Choose "Copy Link". Paste the result in Safari's location bar. See? it's not rich text. It's usually a plain URL. Now do this a couple of dozen times (with different links), and paste the links in, in a Safari textarea, in VoodooPad, etc. Notice how sometimes you end up with the actual text from the link, completely against the UI predictability rules. And no, for the umpteenth time, I have no SIMBL voodoo installed on one of my Macs, and it exhibits the exact same behavior.

Worse, I have had odd lockups when resuming from sleep on all machines and at least one unexplained kernel dump in my iMac G5. At the time, I was doing nothing more stressful than sorting through images in the Finder - small images, all of them part of my growing Dilbert cartoon connection.

I have so far been lucky in that I don't have Nuno's problems with iPhoto. That may both due to my not pounding the thing with tens of gigabytes of photos and my relative lack of interest in its features, but having it crash when rotating a photo and pause in the middle of scrolling through a small (i.e., 200-strong) subset of my photos is, as far as I'm concerned, inexcusable.

Bluetooth dial-up has also become somewhat unreliable - last year, during my previous vacation, it worked every time, with zero issues. This year, Internet Connect complains of not being able to find my phone roughly one in four times, and takes ages to figure out that yes, I do have the Bluetooth USB dongle inserted. It is exactly the same phone, a battered Z1010. The dongle is also the same - the Apple-approved DBT-120.

(Fortunately, the connection, once established, is rock solid - although most of the credit for that has to go to the Z1010's sheer bloodymindedness where it relates to UMTS radio handling.)

When More Is Less

iSync and .Mac are also becoming noticeably slower, and have steadily worsened in terms of both user experience and UI design, with settings buried all over the place and unfathomable synchronization conflict dialogs that not only can't seem to fully convey exactly what will happen if you pick one of the options but also don't provide you with a clear way to undo the sync.

Finally, the new iTunes 4.9, by virtue of shoehorning podcasts into the iTMS, has brought more than a few dissonant aspects - the UI now sports two main links to the Music Store, and three navigation metaphors - the local library, the Music Store path bar, and the podcast listing, all of which work in different ways - and all of which crash on occasion now.

Why Now?

It's as if Apple has started skimping on testing, with fixes for glaring bugs coming late (or, in some of the instances I outlined above, not at all).

It would be idiotic to start blaming dual platform support for this kind of thing. Not only dual platform development has been going on for years now, but most of these issues are application-related. As such, these things are likely to be happening on either platform, and don't seem to be reflected on the Mac OS X kernel itself.

But I cannot help but wonder, as Apple prepares to move us all onto the supposedly greener pastures of Intel processors, if that transition will have to mean lowered expectations in terms of reliability - you know, the kind of thing we associate with Windows.

Switch Back? No Way, But...

Bring on Vista - I won't switch back, at least not based on whatever "improvements" have surfaced, and most definitely not at home, but Mac OS X is starting to need some competitive pressure of its own, and Microsoft is making a lot of noise regarding reliability.

Most of it is exactly the same corporatespeak boilerplate as when XP was announced, but the statement is out there, and with all the delays, they'd better be trying to outdo Apple at stability testing - which, given their track record and the recent screenshots focusing on spurious eye candy, isn't that likely.

All things considered, I would probably look to Linux and Gnome if I wanted some serious competition regarding desktop stability. Okay, I won't mention Evolution today.

Let me be perfectly clear, though, in that I don't think Open Source has all the answers. There are lots of rough edges - and some of those even cross over to the Mac, where I keep pulling back from Firefox and Thunderbird due to all those little UI details that they managed to get catastrophically wrong.

Now, where did I put that Camino disk image?