Apple -- Getting it Right and Getting it Wrong

Columnist John Welch applauds Apple for making his upgrade simple, but takes the company to task for not providing meaty documentation.
Posted December 2, 2005

John Welch

John Welch

Before I get to the subject of this week's column, I'd like to do something you don't often see in this space and report some good news about Mac OS X Server.

I recently upgraded my Open Directory Domain Controller from Mac OS X Server 10.3.9 to 10.4.3. I had waited until 10.4.3 for some fixes I needed to upgrade. I decided to do it as an in-place upgrade, just to see if it would work. I have backups in place, so if I had to go the 'Nuke and Pave' route, I could do so. But I wanted to see if the upgrade would work. I hadn't seen many success stories, so my expectations were low.

It went beyond swimmingly well.

It was the most frighteningly easy and painless upgrade I've ever done. No problems -- not a one. Not even a hint of a problem. As Apple PR likes to say, ''It just worked.''

Note that I went to 10.4.0, ran the server setup, then ran all the updates to get me to 10.4.3 and all the patches. I didn't have a single problem. It's an upgrade to die for. I had blocked out the entire week of Thanksgiving for this upgrade, but it only took five hours, and two of those were due to my own overly cautious nature.

I do feel, with all the criticism I level at Apple for the things I think they do wrong or poorly, that when they do something right, or make something like a server upgrade work well, I should praise them for doing things so well you don't realize how complicated the thing you just did could have been.

So good job, Apple, on helping my upgrade take five hours instead of my planned 40 to 50, or more.

IT Documentation

However, that's not the main thrust of today's article. Today, I really want to talk about Apple's IT Documentation, or more correctly, the lack of it. Apple, for all its enterprise push, really doesn't get that timely, complete technical information for IT people is critical. Apple's made some baby steps with their IT Pro section, at, but that is really more of a marketing area. Oddly enough, it's not even in the 'Pro' section of Apple's site, but in the Business section.

The biggest problem with IT Pro is that it exudes a 'marketing people designed this site' feel. It's pretty. It's streamlined, but there's not a lot of meat there. It's not a place that makes answering technical questions or finding information easy. From my viewpoint, it's not terribly useful at all.

There's really no decent knowledge base or real technical documentation along the lines of HOWTOs. (I, personally, find the discussion forums painful to use, and when I do use them, they only help me about 25 percent of the time). The technotes are good, but there aren't enough of them, and they're rather generic. That's not completely bad. You don't want to be too specific on a technote, but at the same time, there has to be real meat.

It's not like Apple doesn't have a great model for what the IT community needs. They do. Apple's developer site, the Apple Developer Connect, is a great model. And that's good because, ironically, most of the real meaty technical documentation is in the developer documentation.

For example, if you wanted to see if you could Kerberize the Mac OS X 10.4 Server VPN, and you did a search across Apple's entire support site, you'd think there was no documentation for it. Even if you searched for 'Kerberizing the Mac OS X VPN Server', you wouldn't find anything. But go to the Developer site, and search for that phrase there, and you get an instant link to it.

What's the name of the document? Mac OS X Server Administration Topics.

What's the URL for this document? on/MacOSXServer/Conceptual/XServer_ProgrammingGuide/index.html

It's listed as a programming guide. If you didn't know that all of Apple's HOWTO-ish documentation is in the developer site, you'd never think to look there. It's almost like someone at Apple is afraid to let go of technical information unless they label it 'developer'. Well, aside from some AppleScript and some shell, I'm not a developer. I don't use Xcode really for much of anything beyond hobby stuff.

This hurts Apple, because it looks like they don't have any real resources for IT pros beyond marketing fluff. If you compare it to Microsoft's TechNet, it's not even in the same league.

For example, here's what you get with a TechNet Plus subscription, (MSRP of $1,269, so it's less than half the price of a Premiere ADC membership, this is via DVD, multiple discs):

  • Technet Information Library
  • Technet Subscription Index
  • Downloads
  • Speech Server 2004 R2 Enterprise Edition
  • Speech Server 2004 R2 Standard Edition
  • Windows Services for UNIX 3.5 - English
  • Systems Management Server 2003 International Client Pack 2 Multilingual User Interface - Multilanguage
  • TechNet Technical Training 2003-2005 - English
  • Security Updates - English
  • Office Live Communications Server 2005 with Service Pack 1 Enterprise Edition
  • Office Live Communications Server 2005 with Service Pack 1 Standard Edition
  • Office OneNote 2003 with Service Pack 1
  • Office Small Business Accounting 2006
  • Virtual PC 2004; Windows XP Professional with Service Pack 2
  • Windows XP Professional x64 Edition - English
  • BizTalk Server 2006 Beta 1; BizTalk Server 2006 Beta 1 (Installation Instructions and Known Issues)
  • Internet Explorer 7 Beta 1 for Windows XP with Service Pack 2 - English
  • System Center Data Protection Manager 2006 Beta Disc 1 - English, German, Japanese
  • Windows "Longhorn" Professional Edition Beta 1 - English
  • Windows "Longhorn" Professional x64 Edition Beta 1 - English
  • Windows "Longhorn" Professional Edition Beta 1 Windows Automation Installation Kit - English

Note that the server stuff is not time limited. And note that this is not a developer subscription, which is good, because the high-end MSDN programs give you a copy of pretty much everything Microsoft makes. Even for the ADC Premiere levels, you aren't getting the same thing from Apple. The MSDN Team Suite Premium Subscription may cost you almost $11,000, but go to the MS DN subscriptions chart page and see what that gets you.

What do I get from Apple via the $3,500 ADC Premiere program?

  • Free copies of Mac OS X 10.4
  • I can lease an Intel Transition Kit (For $999)
  • A free ticket to the WWDC
  • Seed downloads of some pre-release software
  • Eight Developer Technical Support (DTS) Incidents
  • If I happen to live in Cupertino, Beijing, or Tokyo, thrice-monthly access to Apple's Compatibility Labs
  • Discounts on hardware
  • Regular updates of OS X free, and downloads of OS X Server
  • Regular SDK/DDK updates
  • Email News

So for a lot more money, I get a program that really is not designed for IT pros, and a lot of stuff that just goes in the coaster collection. Note that I can get most of of the Premiere program in the Select program, for $500 a year. Even adding on the free WWDC ticket, I still pay less than Premiere. The closest thing Apple has to an IT pro program is the Apple Consultants Network, (ACN), but, while a good program for consultants, the ACN is woefully inadequate for enterprise IT needs. And take notice that I just compared the programs. If you go to the TechNet Web site, and compare it to Apple's IT Pro section, the differences are astounding, and not in Apple's favor.

Enterprise IT needs an Apple version of TechNet. We need something with IT incidents. We need discs full of HOWTOs, not SDKs. We need DVDs with every product Apple makes so we can support people using those products. We need access to betas of not just the OS, but of every product Apple makes, so we can make sure before it's released that we know at least some of what to expect.

We'll sign NDAs. That's not a problem. I sign them all the time. I can't remember a time since 1997 when I haven't been testing something under some NDA. But we need information -- detailed, technical information. We need summaries of what Apple SE's see and fix, ala IBM's Redbook concept.

Ironically, the less often we have to call support, the more sanguine we are about paying when we do call support, because we're happier that we're not being used as a cash cow. I've worked in places where we paid IBM almost $50,000 a year, and rarely had to call them because we never needed to. When we did, it was critical, and the support rocked, so we always signed that check. But if we had been forced to call IBM every time we needed even basic technical information and assistance, we would have resented it far more.

Enterprise IT needs Apple to start recognizing that even with Unix, you can't just lump us in with developers. We have different needs and requirements. It's not like there are no numbers to support a TechNet-ish program. Out of more than 120 sessions at the 2005 WWDC, there were almost 50 in the Enterprise IT track alone, and another 10 to 15 of direct interest to IT pros. That's half the conference. And I can tell you that the Enterprise IT sessions we quite crowded.

Finally, Apple needs to really, truly understand that they have to provide useful technical information to IT pros, just like they do for developers. Apple needs to stop fearing the release of solid technical information in a timely manner. This can be done without giving away upcoming products or directions. It can be done without revealing what's happening in Apple's version of a 'Skunkworks' division. But it has to be done.

We simply cannot keep trying to make mailing lists, personal connections, and extrapolation act like proper technical information. This is a critical issue for Apple, and one that hurts them daily in their quest to expand market share.

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