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Legacy software


How long does it take for software to deteriorate? I ask because of an infuriating problem with my iPod Touch.

I originally bought it because I was interested in developing apps for the iPhone. I did not have an iPhone at the time and XCode (the Apple development environment) did not have a useful simulator. From a development viewpoint the iPod Touch seemed like an iPhone at less than half-price.

In the event, I got tired of learning Cocoa after a few months. A couple of years later I got an iPhone, XCode was upgraded, and the iPod became a grossly overpriced music player.

In general I am distrustful of multi-purpose devices, but I eventually realised that there is considerable merit in playing music on your phone, because when you take a call the music is automatically paused. I also discovered that when walking in noisy London streets there is much to be said for the earplugs with the built in microphone on the lead between them.

Of course, the earplugs eventually broke and I discovered that Apple adopt the classic strategy, beloved of car manufacturers, of grossly overcharging for spares. Asda had slightly better earphones (with mike) for £5, instead of over £20 for Apple. But it turned out that the jack would not fit properly through the stupid piece of plastic around the iPhone.

For those who have forgotten that debacle, Apple managed to ship an iPhone 4 model with a major aerial glitch. If you held the phone with your fingers in contact with the metal sides (hard to avoid), then aerial effectiveness declined by a factor 10. In good reception areas, phone conversations were still possible, but in my case the internet link always died, so the phone was converted from a top-end smartphone to a so-so basic phone. I was apparently too late to get the free fix from Apple, so I had to buy – for £12 – a plastic band which fitted over the sides, with little holes for the controls and jacks.

It worked fine, but unfortunately the Asda jack would not go through it. I tried enlarging the hole with a penknife but only succeeding in dangerously weakening the plastic band. So I returned to the iPod. Most weekday mornings I start with a half-hour walk, and I wanted to listed to an audiobook. But the damned iPod kept shuffling the tracks.

That had never happened before, so I assumed it was the iOS update I installed before using it. I googled and found that the problem had been commonplace for a year or two – so it was evidently introduced in an earlier update and still not fixed. After an hour or so of searching I found the advice:

(1) reset the device; (2) reset all settings.

That took about 5-10 minutes and worked, although I have not yet bothered to investigate exactly what other settings it has messed up. Since I only use it to play audio tracks, it is probably not worth the risk of triggering the bug again.

I have to admit that in general Apple does a fairly good job. It clearly hopes that you will replace your hardware on a regular basis, even if is working fine, but my iMac is still working after more than 5 years. The hard drive eventually stopped working and it was bizarrely difficult to switch to a new external drive. Apple’s “Genius Bar” was no help, although I was not quite sure whether that was a matter of policy or lack of knowledge. But once I had figured it out without help, the iMac worked better than ever.

The real problem is that there is little middle ground between naive user and geek. If you are happy with Apple’s default settings and choices, then everything works fairly well, but if you want to tinker you are in trouble. OS X is replete with complicated sets of interlocking, ill-documented text files to control exactly how things work. A true geek relishes that and spends all his spare time discovering the obscure detail for himself (there do not seem to be many female geeks). But if you just turn to such things once a month, it is a nightmare. I typically spend hours before ending up defeated, or occasionally triumphantly changing one line in a text file to make the change I want.

So is it fair to brand OS X/iOS as legacy software? Probably not. But it is salutary how much effort is needed (by Apple) to keep it alive. We are still far from figuring out how to create and maintain a million lines of code at a reasonable price.

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