Our Macs are steadily going NUM

Two of the most exciting articles that I have seen in a Mac magazine are Alan Stonebridge’s Make you own Fusion Drive (MacFormat issue 296), and Lucy Hattersley’s Make a Time Capsule (MacFormat issue 297). Apart from the latter being another exhilarating chapter in the Raspberry Pi’s campaign to control absolutely everything in the world, both show that the spirit of computer owner-user-maintainer is not dead yet. Enjoy these while you can: I fear that their days are numbered.

Computer magazines used to be full of such projects, and the earliest issues had pages of close-printed program source code which was often more important than the English prose of the articles.

It is also ironic that these two projects set out to emulate two of Apple’s most forceful moves to make Macs NUM – not user-maintainable.

If you have a Time Capsule or a Fusion Drive, you will know exactly what I mean. If anything goes wrong with either, even though you think that AirPort Utility and Disk Utility might offer some hope, you know that in reality you will be taking them back to your local Genius Bar or authorised repair facility for a repair quote.

This is not a recent trend, not by a long chalk. Way back with the earliest Macs, Apple has engineered them for efficient factory, not user, maintenance. Fixing any Mac consists of two steps: diagnosing which hardware module is faulty, and then replacing it. In its early days, when many maintenance engineers still wielded hot soldering irons and logic probes, it was innovative.

It has steadily become more pervasive, as shown by the Fusion Drive. Almost uniquely operating under OS X’s new and essentially undocumented CoreStorage – of which Apple is so secretive that it isn’t even consistent in its name, which could equally be Core Storage as far as anyone knows – third-party use and support are severely limited.

A drive problem? In a Fusion Drive? Ah, you will have to speak to Apple about that one.

And when you do speak to Apple, don’t be surprised if you are instructed to press a key combination which is new to you: Command-Option-Control-Shift-period. This runs the command line tool sysdiagnose, dumping over 1500 files and folders to a compressed archive ready for remote diagnosis. Several of the reports which it produces are headed For Apple Internal Use Only; Not for Disclosure/Distribution Outside of Apple.

I am not suggesting for a moment that OS X is about to lose the command line, but watch carefully what has been happening with its software utilities, like Disk Utility, now a shadow of its former self. Some changes, particularly the special protection of sensitive system folders by SIP, have been driven mainly by security concerns. But they are also great ways of wrapping more of OS X inside a large black box labelled NUM.

We are also, I must admit, enjoying this inexorable transition to NUMness. Gone are the chunky great metal boxes which we could open up and reconfigure our hard disks whenever we felt the need to tinker. If you are one of the few who has a ‘new’ Mac Pro rather than the appliance iMacs which the rest of us enjoy, you will perhaps have tried the substitute of hooking up another box to its Thunderbolt chain. Yes, another box clearly labelled NUM next to its serial number.

We’ve survived the same change with our cars, which just a few short decades ago might be tuned using manometers or a stethoscope, and now need to be hooked up to a diagnostic computer. Lift the bonnet of any fairly recent model and you’ll see the large cover over the engine, the letters NUM etched large on it.

No wonder retro-computing is getting as popular as old car parades, and Raspberry Pi is cutting edge.