ENGINEERING ETHICS BLOG
There is a totalitarian frame of mind that favors what I would call routinely hyperbolic language. Some years ago, I read a book that was published during the Great Cultural Revolution in the Peoples’ Republic of China from 1966 to 1976. It described the work of an English doctor who had defected to China and cooperated fully with the regime’s propaganda machine. The actual good he did medically, which was considerable, is not the point. But the title of the book was classic totalitarian-speak: Away With All Pests.
Apple is not the PRC, but their attitude toward individuals and smaller companies in their orbit of influence is, shall we say, hardly cooperative and democratic in all cases. Take, for example, the situation of a small or medium-size software developer, for whom a total rewrite of their software product is a crippling and possibly prohibitive undertaking. Now, I’m not a computer scientist, and so some of what I say may be speculative or even wrong. But from what I can tell, taking an application written for a 32-bit operating system (which was the typical PC and Mac system until about 2004, when Intel introduced their 64-bit processor), and rewriting it for a 64-bit OS is a big deal, and presents all sorts of backward-compatibility and other issues that may be insurmountable in some cases. So it’s understandable that many software firms simply haven’t bothered yet.
Well, along comes Apple last June and announces that the next OS upgrade—OS 10.14, called Mojave—will be the last version to support 32-bit software at all. High Sierra—the one my fairly new Mac runs—will tolerate 32-bit stuff, but it’s the last one that will do so without problems. So what that means is, if I have to upgrade my OS beyond what I have now, I risk losing, and am eventually certain to lose, all my 32-bit software.
Up until 2016, that included near-vital things like Microsoft Office. Microsoft finally got in gear and issued 64-bit versions of Office for Mac, but those of you clinging to the old friendly version of Excel that I used to like so much are going to be out of luck when 32-bit becomes anathema.
Personally, I stand to lose three different apps that are specialized enough that the supporting companies are fairly small, or in one case is just open-source freeware hosted by a government agency. I have no idea whether these organizations are going to offer 64-bit versions in time for me to keep using them when the dark day comes that I kiss High Sierra good-by and grit my teeth and get the new 64-bit-only OS. But if experience is any guide, I’ll lose some valuable software, and the ability to work with its legacy files, in the process. The last time this happened I lost an expensive video editing application and all its video files—toast, after only three or four years.
Of course, if I had the attitude prescribed by our fearless Apple corporate leaders, I would not harbor such traitorous thoughts as the notion that Apple can do anything wrong, and think that the latest OS upgrade is anything other than an unalloyed boon to humanity. And I would regard the 32-bit software vendors as running dogs of imperialism, or whatever the latest totalitarian insult is.
But I have a life outside of the time I spend on my computer, and in that life I try to relate to things of permanence and eternal significance: God, for instance, and my place in His universe. And to God, as the psalmist tells us, even an entire human lifetime is like grass that springs up in the morning and dries out and dies by the same afternoon. We may not like that idea, but if an entire lifetime dwindles into insignificance in the light of eternity, how can I take seriously the urging of even a corporation as large as Apple that their new operating system is the greatest thing to come along since—well, since we hope you can’t remember back farther than last week, when we just made you give up your last 32-bit application.
I’m not making a lot of sense here, perhaps, but I’m trying to express something about the culture of Apple, or at least the attitude it tries to encourage among its customers, that I find distasteful, unhelpful, and pernicious if carried outside the narrow field of software and applied to life in general. It’s basically the attitude that I must have the newest, latest, most advanced of everything in order not just to be happy, but to be able to function in society at all. And because so many things we do now, from contacting friends to doing our jobs, depend on software products, Apple has the raw power to enforce that attitude at the pain of our being severely inconvenienced in various ways. I don’t expect the Apple secret police to show up at my door and haul me away if they find out I’m running 32-bit scanner software. But just the other day, I had to let go of a Canon scanner that was still mechanically perfect because I discovered that there are no drivers available for it that are compatible with the operating system of the Mac I bought last spring. What’s the difference between having a scanner worth $100 quit working because of something Apple did, and paying a $100 fine to the cops? Not a lot that I can tell.
Calmer heads will urge me to take the bitter with the sweet, and will remind me of all the good things I can do with computers and software that I wouldn’t be able to do otherwise, and to take upgrade losses like this in stride. Well, maybe they have a point. But Apple in particular is running its 32-bit ban in a rather cultural-revolutionish way, and unless everybody decides to abandon Macs altogether in protest (which is about as likely as it was for 700 million Chinese to revolt in 1966), we will all have to knuckle under and give up our 32-bit applications. All I can hope for is that my new machine keeps running a long time and I don’t have to get the new OS for any reason. And maybe those three software outfits will come out with 64-bit versions of their software, but I’m not holding my breath on that either.