Mac OS Catalina: more trouble than it’s worth (Part 2)

I should have listened to you. When I read your post Mac OS Catalina: More Trouble Than It’s Worth I honestly thought you were just bashing Apple for the sake of bashing. I thought your critique was too subjective to be taken as ‘advice for everybody’ if you get my drift. I read your post and thought, “Well, he doesn’t want to upgrade his machines and he has his reasons, but I don’t share his concerns, I’m gonna be fine.” Hoo boy, was I mistaken.

I don’t know if mine was just sheer bad luck, but since installing 10.15 I’ve run into so many issues. First, when I went on and updated my Mac mini from Mojave to Catalina, the installation didn’t complete. It just hung for hours, and I mean hours as I left the mini at that all night and the morning after there was no progress whatsoever. So I just switched off the mini and reinstalled Catalina from scratch, a fresh install. I thought I could restore the important stuff from a TM [Time Machine] backup. This time Catalina installed properly but then TM didn’t even recognize the backups from my external drive.

Luckily I also have an older MacBook, and while I don’t keep everything in sync, I was able to access most of my stuff and transfer files and everything to the mini. I manually copied my Mail archives and tried having Mail on the mini to import them, but no joy. Every time Mail in Catalina crashed. At the moment I have no way to access the most updated files of the past two weeks.

[…] Does my backup strat suck? Yeah it probably does. I’ve always been a “TM is enough” sort of guy. I’ve always trusted Apple not to screw things up, and honestly everything up to now has always worked for me. Never had a problem with my Macs, hardware or software. But I didn’t expect this ordeal when I went to update to Catalina. Now obviously I’m not going to touch the MacBook. Has Mojave and stays on Mojave. And honestly I don’t know what to do with the mini. It has a fresh install of Catalina, it’s like starting from scratch again, and I’m already tired of clicking on dialog boxes asking me permission for so much stuff like accessing folders that OBVIOUSLY I want the OS to access. I’m tempted to wipe the mini again and downgrade to Mojave. Maybe it’ll recognize my TM backups again and I can go back to before this nightmare went down.

This is a good chunk of one of the latest emails I have received from people (some I know from the Internet, some are friends, some — like this example — are strangers) complaining about Mac OS 10.15 Catalina. The only part I’ve left out is this person’s criticisms regarding the new first-party apps (Music, TV, Podcasts), their UI, and the splitting of iTunes into different apps.

The amount of feedback I’ve received about Catalina in the past few months is staggering, to the point that I have created a dedicated folder in Mail to collect all the messages that keep coming on a fairly regular basis. They’re 83 so far and — spoiler alert — 98% of them are complaints. The remaining 2% are neutral. They’re from people who simply wrote me to let me know they have upgraded to Catalina and ‘survived’, and that they have no issues to report so far.

The complaints are varied, and go from minor things like begrudgingly accept the loss of 32-bit apps, or disliking the strictness and user hostility of the added security measures. To more serious troubles like the partial loss of email archives, unexpected system freezes and applications crashing, preferences that don’t stick, Catalina’s poor handling of external displays connected to MacBooks, inability to access previous Time Machine backups, and so forth. I chose to publish the email excerpt above because it was one of the most detailed I had received, and it came from what appears to be a rather tech-savvy person.

But some of the feedback from regular folks is just as sad. People asking me “Where the heck is iTunes? Where’s my music?”, or shocked that some of their applications don’t work anymore (32-bit apps, I assume). An acquaintance of mine was crushed when she realised that not only did Aperture not work under Catalina, but that Apple had stopped developing it some time ago. Another was overwhelmed and bewildered by the initial barrage of security-related dialog boxes, to the point that they were afraid they had done something wrong (or something had gone awry) when installing Catalina. Another made a remark that was as bitter as it was funny: “Sooo… I upgraded. Can you summarize what’s changed here compared to Mojave, apart from the desktop background?”. Another person wrote me an email with the subject, I have updated to macOS Catalina and here’s what I found; the body of the email simply said, Bugs bugs bugs bugs bugs bugs.

I take no pleasure in reporting this, but a good amount of messages had another thing in common: people were apologising to me for having disregarded my advice to avoid upgrading straight away without doing some homework first, or for criticising my piece on Catalina as being too excessive, too subjective or too negative, like many people did when it was linked from Hacker News. (Not to mention those basically calling me an idiot, a luddite, an entitled teenager(!), or someone who doesn’t ‘get’ tech).

Almost four months have passed since I wrote Mac OS Catalina: more trouble than it’s worth and my opinion hasn’t changed at all. If I do end up installing Catalina, it’ll be a fresh install on a Mac that will be acquired for the specific purpose of running Catalina, just in case I need to test or translate applications that have Mac OS 10.15 as minimum requirement. But I’m not going to compromise my production machines.

It’s interesting to me how — apart from the usual fanboys — I still haven’t seen any unequivocally positive feedback about Mac OS Catalina. I still haven’t found someone saying, Oh man, everything is so much better after upgrading to Catalina. I can take advantage of these new features, and my workflow and productivity are so much improved compared with Mojave or High Sierra. I’ve either read people saying, Yeah, I upgraded and nothing broke, thank goodness, or complaining about something they’ve lost or having changed in a disappointing way. What I haven’t seen is something I used to see more frequently in the past when a new major release of Mac OS X was introduced — enthusiasm.

If you read the Macs section of Howard Oakley’s blog, you can appreciate a more technical explanation of the many under-the-bonnet changes introduced in Catalina, and a generally neutral position on what has changed for the better, and what keeps being problematic. But having to dig this deep down the technical side to find something positive in Mac OS Catalina, to me, feels a bit troubling.

When Mac OS X 10.6 Snow Leopard was introduced as having “no new features”, even regular folks understood what that meant; they understood it was a release aimed at fixing past bugs and improving the general stability and reliability of the system. Judging from the feedback I’ve received, the general impression with Catalina is that 1) most of what’s new doesn’t strike as being much better than what Mojave and earlier versions offered, and 2) unlike Snow Leopard at the time, every ‘invisible’ change doesn’t seem to bring more stability or reliability, just more disruption in a way or another.

In October I wrote:

But Catalina is a decidedly controversial upgrade, and in my case I didn’t even have to debate too much whether I should upgrade or not. The answer is no. The reasoning behind it is quite simple, actually, and it boils down to this: what Catalina takes away from me is more than what it gives me.

Four months later, this seems to be true for a few more people. And Catalina looks more and more like a transitional release Apple needed to push out while preparing for what’s next (preparing the ground for an architecture shift, for example). It increasingly feels like an entirely skippable release, just as Yosemite was. (Oh yes, it was). What we’ll see in Mac OS 10.16 is probably going to be the proverbial moment of truth.