Last Week on My Mac: Apple’s calendar

For such a huge organisation spread across the globe, Apple maintains a remarkably consistent and cohesive image, and singular corporate direction. It’s relatively unusual to find major disparities in different parts of its organisation, but last week emphasised one which is causing many Mac users problems: the continuing incompleteness of High Sierra.

It’s now over six months since Apple released High Sierra 10.13, and time for Apple’s apps to make the most out of its new features and technologies. So it shouldn’t have been a surprise that last week’s round of software updates, including iMovie, Final Cut Pro, Motion, and Compressor, applied only to High Sierra.

There might have been an ulterior motive driven by another calendar too. Ten months ago, at WWDC 2017, Apple announced that apps needed to be 64-bit by the release of macOS 10.14. Amazingly, even after this update Apple’s Compressor 4.4.1 is still a 32-bit app. As High Sierra was to start naming and shaming those apps which were still 32-bit on 12 April, Apple has to update Compressor, but failed to meet its own deadline.

At this stage in the previous cycles of El Capitan (and earlier) and Sierra, there was no problem with Apple dropping app updates for the previous release of macOS/OS X. Those versions of macOS were feature-complete and reasonably stable after six months, although some specific models still suffered frequent kernel panics and other issues.

High Sierra is different. Not only was it the most rushed and immature major release of macOS for many years (some would say ever), but its major new feature, APFS, is still far from complete, and a long way from being fully supported by macOS itself.

For the last five years, Apple has been unique among major computer manufacturers in promoting its combined hard drive and SSD combinations – Fusion Drives – to those purchasing two of its most popular ranges, the iMac and Mac mini. Apple engineered a whole new layer in its storage software, CoreStorage, to enable users to enjoy much of the speed of SSDs at a cost little greater than that of a plain hard drive.

Had Apple only offered the traditional choice between hard drives and SSDs, few of those who have bought Macs with Fusion Drives could possibly have afforded the high cost of SSDs. Apple has thus gained significant commercial benefit from its Fusion Drives.

When High Sierra was detailed for the first time at WWDC in June 2017, it was announced as supporting SSDs, Fusion Drives, and rotating hard drives. When it shipped three months later, it initially only supported SSDs, but Craig Federighi stated in an email to a concerned user that Apple planned to add support for Fusion Drives “in a future update”.

Since then, High Sierra’s APFS has come to support hard drives, but the millions of users who have invested in iMacs and Mac minis with Fusion Drives have been left stranded. Apple has not, as far as I can tell, even mentioned whether or when APFS will eventually support their Fusion Drives.

Yet Apple continues to sell several models for which a Fusion Drive is a standard configuration, and more in which it is an option. All three of the current iMac 27-inch models come as standard with Fusion Drives, for example, and ship with High Sierra installed without its major new feature.

While Apple is keen to reassure prospective purchasers that the fan assembly of their new iMac is made with 26% bio-based plastic and that its display glass is arsenic-free, nowhere in its promotional pages about macOS High Sierra does it mention, even in the fine print of a footnote, that Fusion Drives currently do not use its new file system.

If that was not sufficiently disjoint, Apple’s built-in backup system in High Sierra cannot back up to an APFS volume. So even if you have spent all that cash on an iMac Pro with an internal 4 TB SSD and an external SSD RAID array, you’ll be stuck backing it up to your array using 20-year-old HFS+, which Apple admits was never designed for use on SSDs.

As I have pointed out before, the stumbling block to Time Machine is lack of support in APFS for directory hard links, which appears to have been a design decision probably made more than two years ago. Over that long period, Apple has failed to respond to its own decision and devote the resources needed for Time Machine 2. Presumably we will have to wait for macOS 10.14 this autumn for Apple to see its way to that solution.

If you have an iMac or Mac mini with a Fusion Drive, or want to be able to back up to an APFS volume, High Sierra 10.13.4 does not deliver the goods, nearly seven months after its release. If you are looking to purchase a new Mac with a Fusion Drive, you should first ask Apple whether that Fusion Drive will ever be able to use APFS, and if so, when.

It’s all very well Apple keeping to its calendar for dropping support for Sierra in updates to its software. But it also needs to keep to its calendar for delivering the features of High Sierra which it promised us almost a year ago.

Or is Apple deeming many of its current products obsolete before they have even been sold?

Postscript: Thanks to Jeff Johnson @lapcatsoftware for pointing out that even now, Compressor 4.4.1 is only a 32-bit app. Really? Apple, I have only two words for you – pot, kettle.