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iTunes, Tiger, and irrational ire: The difference between updates and upgrades

Update: After we posted this story, reader Nate emailed us to suggest that if you find yourself in Rupert Jones' shoes (with a new iOS device that requires Leopard/iTunes 10 for sync support, but still running Tiger on your Intel Mac), call AppleCare. He says that Apple's support team will ask you for your iPhone/iPad/iPod touch serial number... and then send you a copy of Mac OS X 10.5 Leopard, free of charge. No word on whether this is official policy or merely an ad-hoc accommodation, and it's possible that the upgrade deal is only available to US customers, but it's worth a shot.

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Rupert Jones of the Guardian recently discovered -- to his utter shock and dismay -- that his four-year-old MacBook running a nearly four-year-old OS can't run current software without being upgraded. His MacBook runs Tiger, which means he can't run iTunes 10, which further means he can't sync with any of Apple's latest portable gear.

Anyone reading this probably knows the next step: pay to upgrade to Leopard, download iTunes 10, and get on with your day/week/life. In fact, I'm willing to bet that our readers knew about OS X Leopard when it first launched in late 2007, and chose an upgrade path long ago, whether it was buying Leopard on a disc or upgrading to a new Mac with the OS pre-installed. Most of you probably also moved up to Snow Leopard when it launched, or within a few months.

Rupert Jones didn't do either of those things. In the three and a half years since OS X Leopard's release, he chose to stick with an older iteration of Mac OS X. And four years later, he's blaming Apple for his inability to run current software or sync with current hardware. According to Jones, Apple is "penalizing" him and "thousands of other loyal customers," and not enabling iTunes 10 to run on older versions of Mac OS X amounts to telling these customers their computers are obsolete.

"It seems we have been left with gadgets we can't use, unless we pay more money for a software update," Jones opines. There's a basic problem underlying this argument: like many people, Jones apparently doesn't understand the difference between a software update and an upgrade. That difference is usually simple, and it boils down to dollars. Updates are (mostly) free. Upgrades are (mostly) not.

Mac OS X users and iPhone/iPad users get free updates all the time. Since installing Snow Leopard on my MacBook Pro, I've downloaded and installed over 130 software updates, and I've got three more waiting in the queue as I write this. Since getting my first iPhone in early 2009, I've gone from iPhone OS 2.something-or-other all the way up to iOS 4.3.3 (though not on the same hardware). I have well over 200 apps for my iPhone and iPad, and nearly all of them have been updated at least once at no cost to me.

Apple, Microsoft, Google, and other vendors provide software updates for free, because they generally only represent refinements or enhancements to an existing product. Bug fixes, plugging security holes, improving overall performance: these are the realm of the software update. But a software upgrade almost always costs money, at least on a desktop platform (the mobile landscape has been a weirdly different story thus far, with the exception of early iOS upgrades on the iPod touch). A software upgrade is different from a software update because there's major new features being offered, features that the vendor feels are compelling enough to charge for.

The result is that Mac OS X Tiger 10.4.11 doesn't cost a dime more than 10.4.10, because it's essentially the same product with a patch applied. Mac OS X Leopard costs money because it's an upgrade that brings all the new product features you get in that deceptively incremental bump from 10.4 to 10.5, things like Time Machine, security updates... and compatibility with the latest software and hardware.

Jones says, correctly, that Windows users don't have the same compatibility problem that owners of older Macs face. iTunes 10 still supports Windows XP Service Pack 2 -- a remarkable feat, that, since not even Microsoft offers support for that OS version anymore. Windows XP Service Pack 2 even launched almost a full year before Mac OS X Tiger did, so why can't Apple extend the same support to its own OS that it does to an even older Windows OS?

Ask any PC user how well iTunes runs on Windows, and you'll have your answer. Saying iTunes "runs" on a PC running Windows XP SP 2 is like saying a Toyota Echo can tow a U-Haul trailer over the Rocky Mountains. It's technically feasible -- I've done it -- but in both cases, you'll be thinking to yourself, "This sucks. There's got to be a better way." Jones has cited a handful of people complaining about not being able to use iTunes 10 under Tiger, but I can't go anywhere online and mention "iTunes" to a PC user without hearing about what a pile of crap iTunes is on Windows.

Engine smaller than what many motorcycles have. Doesn't sync with an iPhone 4. DAMN YOU, APPLE

Since a plurality, if not necessarily the majority, of PC-running iTunes users are still rocking Windows XP (it's still the world's most popular OS by a wide margin), it makes perfect sense for Apple to keep legacy support for that old warhorse. But on the Mac side, no more than six percent of users are still running OS X Tiger, and in a poll of our decidedly more tech savvy readership, it turned out that barely over one percent of poll respondents still ran Tiger. This is precisely why Apple doesn't offer support for Tiger anymore: most people are not using it, and Apple wisely doesn't bog itself down with offering legacy support at the expense of security and performance the way Windows used to. This is a far cry from the situation Jones would have you believe, that legions of "forgotten customers" are being left behind in favor of "people who are continuing to swell Steve Jobs's coffers by buying his new products."

This may come as cold comfort to Rupert Jones and the others in his position, but Apple doesn't really owe them anything. It would be another matter entirely if his four-year-old MacBook was arbitrarily locked out from syncing with an iPhone 4, but the key point here is it's not locked out. There is a solution that requires no hardware changes whatsoever: pay for a software upgrade. Castigating Apple for not ensuring current software is compatible with a four-year-old OS is tantamount to going back to your car dealership and screaming at them because your 1969 Impala can't play CDs. You don't have to buy a new car, just buy a CD player -- and you don't have to buy a new MacBook, just pay to upgrade your OS. Simple.

To his credit, Jones did investigate the possibility of upgrading to Leopard, but he couldn't find a copy anywhere. But he gets docked for that credit -- and then some -- because a Google search for "Tiger to Snow Leopard" could have solved his problem in about two seconds. In fact, here's the most embarrassing part: the third result in the search was from The Guardian, the very outlet that published Rupert Jones' piece. That's right, if Jones' editor had bothered researching their own site, both of them would quickly have found out that while you're not technically "supposed" to skip Leopard and go straight from Tiger to Snow Leopard (at a much cheaper overall cost), there's nothing stopping you from doing so anyway. Apple operates on the honor system when it comes to OS upgrades instead of encumbering you with software keys like Microsoft does, so if you really can't be arsed to pony up for the full Mac Box Set (and if your conscience doesn't get in your way), you don't have to.

Knowing the difference between updates and upgrades can save you from a lot of the Incredible Hulk-level stress Jones apparently suffered, and it's worth keeping that difference in mind over the next few months as Mac OS X Lion comes out. Lion will likely drop support for many of the earliest Intel-based Macs, which means Snow Leopard will be the end of the line for them. Down the road, that inevitably means the software necessary to coax iDevices into syncing with those Macs will drop support for Mac OS X Leopard, and that means PowerPC-based Macs probably won't be capable of syncing with, say, the iPhone 6 or iPad 4. In that case, users of those older Macs really won't have any choice other than to upgrade to new hardware.

Meanwhile, though, if your Mac's hardware is capable of running the latest OS, there's really no reason it shouldn't be doing so. Aside from being able to sync with the latest batch of iGadgetry, running the latest version of OS X on your Mac means you get more software features, the latest security updates, better performance in most cases, and better third-party support. Or, instead of upgrading your OS by paying out around 10 percent the cost of a new Mac (or less), you can sit on your hands and pout. But if you really expect Apple to continue offering legacy support for an OS that was superseded almost four years ago, then you really haven't been paying attention, have you?

Thanks to Fraser Speirs for the heads-up.

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