Last Week on My Mac: Backing up the future

It’s easy to forget – now that Time Machine is so popular among Mac users – that it was at least partly, if not primarily, intended to support Apple’s Time Capsule products. It’s nearly two years since Apple discontinued them, during which macOS has switched to booting from a new file system. Instead of quietly dropping Time Machine from macOS, Apple has instead re-engineered it to take best advantage of features in APFS such as snapshots.

That same period has seen great growth in cloud backup, and despite support for iOS devices backing up to iCloud, Apple hasn’t yet offered any similar macOS service to recoup the cost of its continuing investment in Time Machine.

More surprisingly, third-party backup software and services haven’t been put out of business by Apple. If anything, there’s an even wider choice today than there was back in 2007 when Time Machine first appeared in Mac OS X 10.5 Leopard. What’s worse for Apple, because of the requirements (self-)imposed by its App Store, all (serious) backup utilities are sold independently. Not only is Apple no longer generating any revenue from selling hardware which relies on Time Machine, but it’s not getting any service revenue from selling on third-party products either.

Some of Apple’s recent decisions in Time Machine development have brought big cost savings: when APFS snapshots were announced at WWDC, Apple revealed that this enabled it to strip some 10,000 lines of code which had previously been required to support ‘mobile Time Machine’, a marginal feature for mobile Macs which has been transformed into one of Time Machine’s strengths. But that still doesn’t generate revenue for Apple.

Perhaps the biggest obstacle to Apple generating service revenue from backups is the continuing dependence of Time Machine on directory hard links, apparently the sole reason that it still can’t back up to an APFS volume. This too is entirely self-imposed: Apple specified and implemented APFS for its own needs, but decided not to include this one feature which is still required by Time Machine’s backups.

This implies that Apple has already chosen a solution which will allow backups to be hosted locally on APFS, or in iCloud, encouraging many more Mac users to pay for 2 TB subscriptions, with the offer of greater in the future. But there’s a lot more to this than merely enabling sparse bundle backups in iCloud. To make this a good choice, it needs to be integrated with Recovery Mode so that full system recovery can be performed using remote backups.

If Apple were to integrate iCloud backup into what I have termed Time Machine 2, it would also be unlikely to steal many of those businesses which are already using cloud backup services. As we’ve been learning from your valuable comments here (thank you to all who’ve responded), those are generally carefully integrated à la carte solutions and often include servers and non-macOS systems.

For integrated iCloud backup to sell in volume to ordinary Mac users, it would need to be as simple as Time Machine is currently, with a fixed schedule and only basic options as to what is included, which would almost certainly not include anything now locked away on the Catalina System volume.

iCloud Time Machine also overcomes a major drawback with local backup to APFS volumes. Those of us who are fortunate enough to be able to mount more than 10 TB of SSD storage might whoop with joy, but for the average Mac user with a Time Capsule, external hard disk(s) or NAS, seeing any benefit requires substantial investment in replacement storage. As I pointed out previously, “who is really ready to back up to APFS just now?”

Many more Mac users could already take advantage of backing up to iCloud rather than to SSDs using APFS. Instead of having to replace their storage, as the size of their backups grew, they’d simply increase the size of their iCloud allocation, and the amount they paid Apple. Augmented subscriptions would bring Apple substantially more service revenue: ten million Mac users at an average of an additional $5 per month is an annual revenue of $0.6 billion. That would surely justify the engineering cost of Time Machine 2.