Lasting Value – On the Future of Our Older Macs

There is no denying that the world of Mac is changing. The dramatic success of iOS first had a significant impact on Mac OS X back in the days of Snow Leopard.

Snowy was always billed as a release not focused on features, but on stability, and it took a little while longer to arrive than was originally announced. We waited 22 months for it to grace the Apple Store shelves, but at the time, this made a lot of sense — we accepted that Apple’s teams were working hard on their iOS products. Snow Leopard may not have brought us ‘shiny’, but I for one was quite happy to settle with ‘stable’.

Since that time, that narrow focus on iOS has broadened back out. Lion brought some iOS concepts back to the Mac, as well as introduced iCloud. We now await OS X 10.8, Mountain Lion. Scheduled to be released a mere year after Lion, we are promised even more features ‘inspired by iPad’.

Wait a second. What was that? It is due to arrive this summer. Just one year after Lion was released.

A new release of OS X hasn’t come so quickly since the operating system was very young and was still being established and stabilised.

This strikes me as quite a shift, and it brings me to an important issue — how does this affect the lifespans of the Apple products we buy?

Planned Obsolescence

Technology moves quickly, and we all accept that there is a certain inevitability in your computer hardware eventually needing to be replaced, and software needing to be upgraded.

Apple have a policy of keeping two versions of OS X current with security updates — the most recent release, as well as the one before that. With the release of Mountain Lion in the summer, this presumably means that support for Snow Leopard will be dropped.

Yes, that’s right. The OS Apple released in the same year as Windows 7 will be out of security support entirely.

Hardware Lifecycles

Software support also has a huge impact on hardware viability, and the speed of Mountain Lion’s timetabled release suggests a new pace for future software enhancements to the Mac — a pace more akin to that of the iPhone and iPad.

On purchasing an iOS device, you can reasonably expect about two years of being ‘current’. The AppleCare support plan is for that length of time, and you can expect updates to iOS for at least that period too.

For the Mac, that ‘current’ duration has always been longer. Mac hardware has traditionally been a more significant monetary investment, and the development of Mac OS X has been a little less frantic. AppleCare on Mac hardware is three years, so you would think that is a fair period to expect to be ‘current’.

Mountain Lion will, we assume, obsolete Snow Leopard after three years of security updates.

What about the release after Mountain Lion? If that follows this new release pattern and is let loose on the Mac App Store by the summer of 2013, Lion will have had just two years of security updates.

How can you have a hardware warranty for three years if the bundled software isn’t even given critical security updates during that period? Yes, OS X upgrades are significantly cheaper than in the past, but there are still plenty of other legitimate reasons for holding off on a whole OS upgrade.

It doesn’t take the recent Flashback Trojan debacle to realise the importance of these security updates, so hanging back long after security support has expired will be an increasing risk.

What Happens from Here?

With entire online communities dedicated to keeping our older Macs going, there is a long-standing expectation that buying Mac hardware is not just a purchase, but an investment in the platform. We expect our Macs to be of high quality, to retain their resale value and to continue to be viable machines several years after their initial purchase.

I am concerned that in this rush to leap into the post-PC era, we are forgetting some of these qualities — qualities that have made the Macintosh what it is. Those without significant financial resources to dispose on computer hardware may in the past have chosen to invest in a Macintosh, instead of buying a PC that reaches abandonment and obsolescence with alarming rapidity.

Will that continue to be a reason to choose the Mac? What happens to the resale values of our four- and five-year-old Macs if they no longer have any prospect of critical security updates?

I hope that I am just being pessimistic. I hope I am just being unnecessarily afraid of this post-PC world towards which we travel.

For me, though, the Mac isn’t just about the ‘shiny’ factor, or even the great software and hardware.

The Mac is also about the care taken to make it a great computer, not just when you buy it, but years later too.

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