A Mac on the edge of Europe

For a few days, I am at the north-western edge of Europe, on the tip of the Isle of Lewis, in the Outer Hebrides. The sun sets (often spectacularly) on the North Atlantic, and there is no other land from here to Newfoundland in Canada.

It took us a day and a half to get here from the English Channel coast: by bus, ferry, bus, three trains, an overnight stay, another bus, a second ferry, and a car ride. You can do it a bit more quickly by air, but it’s both quicker and simpler to travel from the centre of London to the centre of New York. And probably cheaper too.

Only a year ago, internet connections from here were little quicker than public transport. Fibre-optic cables now reach to many of the Hebridean communities, and bandwidths match or exceed those available in the more rural parts of southern England, from where we travelled.

3G and 4G mobile phone coverage remains very patchy, and varies by provider. It is infuriating that the different service providers are unable to share infrastructure in remote areas like these, to the benefit of all users. There was never any serious political drive to such a common-sense solution, and I fear the opportunity has long passed.

It remains to be seen whether good internet connections transform these remote areas, bringing new businesses and employment to retain local people younger than retirement age.

There are still problems for those working this remotely. Infrastructure remains vulnerable to winter storms: in recent years, this part of Lewis has had numerous power outages lasting 2-6 hours, and the longest blacked out much of the island for two days. Keeping desktop Macs running is thus not a case for an uninterruptible power supply (UPS), but for a standby generator.

Broadband connections are reliant on the same mains power, and providing a fallback system for prolonged power outages would probably require an expensive satellite installation. That is unlikely to be feasible for smaller businesses.

Storms also bring interruptions to the ferry services, which means the supermarket shelves go empty, and those travelling for meetings and training on the mainland arrive a day or two late.

There is no such doubt about the quality of life here. The Outer Hebrides have some of the finest scenery on the planet, superb deserted beaches, no traffic jams, and zero stress. The western coast offers some of the best surfing in the UK, and cyclists now flock to tackle the 170 miles of the Barra to The Butt ride.

The nearest Apple store, though, is in Glasgow, with a small independent retailer in Inverness. Mac users on the Scottish Islands need to be as self-sufficient for their technical support as for power. As Apple makes macOS more of a black box, and key systems are moved out of the reach of advanced users and support folk, this becomes increasingly difficult.

There are quite a few people living in the Outer Hebrides and other remote areas who now work remotely from computer systems, including Macs. It is still not an easy option, though, and the more opaque macOS becomes, the harder it will become.