Last Week on My Mac: In memoriam High Sierra

High Sierra’s not quite done yet: in the next couple of weeks, if MacRumors is anything to go by, macOS 10.13.6 will hit the App Store, and then we can all wonder whether it was worth it, when we’re on vacation.

Maybe Apple should have been triskaidekaphobic, and followed the superstition seen in western street numbering of skipping 13 altogether, and going straight on to macOS 10.14. After all, other operating system vendors are happy to omit some version numbers when they feel like it: has anyone here used Windows 9?

The serious lessons come from comparing the success of iOS 11 with the relentless succession of gaffes and shortcomings of its sibling macOS 10.13. Not that iOS 11 has been without its problems, and has taken no less than fourteen incremental updates (so far) to get it right. For macOS 10.13, Apple had to cheat by disguising its more urgent bug-fixes in ‘Supplemental Updates’ which, together with hefty ‘Security Updates’, came thick and fast.

They laid bare serious flaws in Apple’s engineering processes: critical code to handle encryption passwords and their hints had obviously never undergone any review before being shipped in release products; pre-beta testing was cursory, if it took place at all. The company which obsesses over every last design detail in its product packaging didn’t seem to care whether what was inside that packaging was fit for purpose.

High Sierra’s biggest new feature, the APFS file system, has actually fared surprisingly well, in spite of Apple’s seemingly determined efforts to stunt it. Having proudly told us all at WWDC 2017 how it ran on SSDs, Fusion Drives, and traditional hard disks, it came as a shock when the initial release was only supported on the first of those.

But the biggest problem with APFS remains its almost complete lack of documentation – another of Apple’s big lessons from High Sierra which it still hasn’t recognised.

Now that many Mac users are running on APFS, data recovery services are being sent damaged drives with valuable data which they can’t readily recover. For a pro photographer operating away from easy backups, this is a very real risk. Without detailed documentation of APFS, the development of tools and processes to recover data from crashed and damaged disks has been slow, something that Apple appears not to care about.

The supporting cast of new features promised with High Sierra were also slow to arrive in the hands of the user. Access to the new image and video formats, HEIF and HEVC, was all but absent in the initial release, and has only really become apparent in the last few months. What we didn’t realise, though, was that this all became more complex with the phasing out of 32-bit support in future macOS: with QuickTime looking moribund, there was no point in Apple packaging support for the new formats in its traditional CODECs.

For most of us, High Sierra will be the version of macOS that never was, a stepping stone covered with glass shards on the way to Mojave and beyond. Some Mac users, though, will be stuck with it as the most recent operating system which their ageing Macs can run – and that’s not a position that I’d like to be in.

Mercifully, this shouldn’t affect anyone with an Apple Fusion Drive. They first shipped as options for late 2012 iMacs and minis, which will be able to move on to Mojave. The Mac users who deserve the most sympathy are those who bought MacBooks as late as 2015: the oldest MacBook model which will be officially able to upgrade to Mojave is that released in early 2015, little more than three years ago. If you got your MacBook for Christmas in 2014, the closest it can come to Mojave will be 10.13.6, so expect secondhand value to plummet.

High Sierra’s epitaph will be determined by the last fixes and features brought in its forthcoming and final update. It may be a little premature and harsh, but for many Mac users I sense that it might be simply be “Not fit for release”.