Last Week on My Mac: Unglamorous utilities

The word brings on a yawn. They’re those boring essentials that we expect not to fail us – power, water, Internet connection. One of the few times the marketing folk dare use the term it’s prefaced by the misleading word ‘sport’, as in SUV. In macOS, Apple’s so ashamed of them that they’re hidden away, either in /Applications/Utilities, or even worse condemned to /System/Library/CoreServices where only the dedicated can find them.

One thing I can guarantee about WWDC is that there’ll be no mention of any of those utilities. We may get shown the fragmented future of that camel of an app iTunes, and all sorts of glossy stuff using Marzipan, ML and AR. But no one will dare show a screenshot of Disk Utility, explain how Console has been completely rewritten, or sing the praises of a new and natty Network Utility.

Yet without those many utilities, macOS would be useless. Imagine having to perform all those tasks in Terminal (itself another utility, of course), every single time you want to access your keychain or format a thumb drive. Utilities are our bread and butter, our everyday and commonplace. When they don’t work right – remember Disk Utility in early versions of High Sierra? – macOS becomes purgatory.

Operating system vendors consistently underestimate the importance of utilities, and underinvest in their engineering and maintenance. One of the biggest problems of features like extended attributes is Apple’s sustained failure to provide a good tool, even for the command line in this case, which gives us access to them. When things go wrong with them, users can neither see what is wrong, nor can they do anything about it.

As I work through updating the more than thirty utilities which I offer here, I’m surprised at how much of macOS is still locked away by poor or completely absent utility access. The biggest by far is the unified log, which should have been such a great step forward for both users and developers.

Several of my apps now give customised views of the log to help in diagnosis. The most obvious is my Time Machine utility T2M2, which performs fairly simple analysis on log entries to determine whether automatic backups are working properly, or throwing errors. It’s one of the most popular downloads from here, and the sort of utility which Apple could so easily have provided.

Then there are the specialised log views provided in Cirrus, to look for iCloud problems, and Taccy, to help you grapple with privacy protection problems. They don’t currently attempt any analysis or diagnostics of their own, simply separate out those log entries which are most likely to give you clues as to what’s going wrong.

Apple’s answer for most problems seems to be to call Apple Support. My experience in doing that is strongly positive, in that Apple’s support staff are polite if not charming, dedicated to trying to solve your problem, but woefully under-equipped. In the comments I get here and from readers who provide the questions for my section in MacFormat magazine, many have found Apple Support unable to fix their problem for them. That’s often a direct result of both ends lacking the tools.

For Apple Support, it must be like being an orthopaedic surgeon in the days before X-rays. The information available from tools like T2M2, Cirrus and Taccy is hard-won when you have a choice between the near-functionless Console and rummaging through a whole sysdiagnose complete with its voluminous logarchives.

Apple’s reliance on sysdiagnose even with developers is telling. Whenever a developer reports a bug, they are inevitably required to attach a sysdiagnose, even when they can spare Apple the trouble of wading through hundreds of megabytes of data with a log excerpt which demonstrates exactly what’s going wrong. Or, worse still, when the bug is so easily reproducible that a few lines of instructions allow any Mac user to experience it for themselves. A sysdiagnose is the passport which means an engineer might get to look at your bug report.

We need more utilities of better quality. Rather than running a sysdiagnose every time, we need utilities which look specifically at each of the key sub-systems within macOS, crafted for that purpose.