Okay, this is a rant. It’s a rant about some specific software, but it’s also a rant about the fact that normal humans still can’t just buy software that does a job and expect it to work, for the most part. Companies market these products as easy-to-use, but a huge percentage of the time, it’s so broken, unusable, or just plain confusing that someone like me has to get involved. For esoteric database servers, that’s okay. For backup software — something everyone ought to be using — it’s absolutely inexcusable.
Yesterday, I got a call from one of my clients to come out and help him with his backups. He’s the odd duck in my client roster, since I do no development for him; I just do desktop support. Since he’s a friend’s dad (and a friend in his own right), I really see him socially more than I see him professionally, but a week or so ago he called me and asked what sort of backup software I suggest to folks. He wanted total fire-and-forget, and he wanted to be able to span CDs, since his user directory had grown beyond a single CD’s capacity (due primarily to pictures of a certain baby girl, I’m certain).
Well, I don’t really have a favorite. I mirror my stuff across a couple drives, and I burn CDs of key directories pretty regularly, so that software niche isn’t something I have firsthand knowledge of, and I told him so. Then I said something I regret: “I hear good things about Retrospect.”
Well, as I said, he called me yesterday, and I went out to his office this morning. He’d been getting all sorts of weird errors when he tried to do backups, and his computer crashed when he tried to run DiskWarrior to investigate the claims Retrospect made about various failures. In no case did Retrospect make a usable backup.
I ran some tests, since I feared the worst, but I couldn’t find anything wrong with the machine, either with the hardware or the drive itself. I killed a few stray processes, and then tried to do a backup. Retrospect dutifully started copying his user directory to a CD, ran out of space, asked for a second one, finished the backup, and then asked for the first one again in order to verify the backup.
“Hm,” I thought, “perhaps [CLIENT] just did something weird.”
Ah, no. Retrospect refused to recognize the first disc, despite having written to it only moments before. A second try at a backup yielded the same results 15 minutes later, so I called Dantz, the company that makes Retrospect.
Now, [CLIENT] is not a power user. He’s been a Mac guy since the early eighties (he had a Lisa, for crying out loud), and doesn’t ask too much of his systems. He’s got no goofy software on the thing, and it’s a nice, newish 17″ iMac — I actually helped him move into it last year, from an old Power Computing machine. There’s no reason to think it’s gone nuts in any way.
When I finally got to speak to a smart human at Retrospect (half an hour later), I gave them [CLIENT]’s serial number, the version of the software, the version of OS X, and the model name of the computer. I then described Retrospect’s behavior, whereupon the “tech” asked me to verify what model CD-R drive the iMac had. I told him.
Tech: “Oh, you can’t use CD-Rs in that drive.”
Me: “Actually, he can burn CDs from the Finder just fine.”
Tech: “I mean that Retrospect won’t work with CD-Rs or CD-RWs in that particular drive.”
Me: “You mean to say that your backup software doesn’t work properly in one of Apple’s most mainstream computers, and that there’s no way to make it do so?”
Tech: “Sorry. You can use DVD-Rs, though.”
(The problem with that solution was that (a) I wasn’t sure he had a DVD burner and (b) since DVDs have a 4.7GB capacity, he didn’t need $80 worth of backup software to get his 1.4GB of data on a single disc. He can just drop one in, drag is user folder to it, hit “Go”, and be done with it. Period. As it happens, he did spring for the Superdrive, so DVDs it would be.)
I expressed my amazement AGAIN at how ridiculous this was, since there was nowhere I’d yet found that said this incompatibility existed. Tech’s feeble response was that it was included “on a compatibility list on the web site.” Folks, I’ve looked on the site — I had half an hour to search the site while I was on hold — and I never saw such a list. Even if I had, I’m not sure if it would have occurred to me to check it, since the drive in question was a STOCK DRIVE FROM APPLE that is commonly found on their iMacs (it’s an upgrade, sure, but a pretty damn common one). Who doesn’t work with stock equipment? I mean, it’s not like a bunch of companies make iMacs. (Incidentally, I just tried to link to that list, and it appears their support site is now down. Appropriate, I guess.)
I expressed to the Tech precisely how weasely it was that they don’t actively exclude iMac Superdrives from their compatibilty list on the fucking BOX instead of on a page buried on their website that’s full of technical mumbo jumbo people like [CLIENT] shouldn’t be expected to understand. He’s an oil guy, for the love of Mike; he’s got no idea what model drive Apple put in his iMac. After all, I don’t need to know anything about drilling for oil to put gas in my car, right?
I advised [CLIENT] to return the software to PC/Mac Mall (something he had zero trouble doing; they’re eating the shipping both ways, too; since I’m slamming Dantz, I may as well note how impressed I am that PC/Mac Mall does business this way). I advise anyone reading this to avoid Dantz until they get their act together, if they ever do.
Of course, “go get some recordable DVDs and use them instead” wasn’t quite the end of the story. Don’t get me started on the whole DVD-R vs. DVD+R quagmire. Suffice it to say I forgot it existed, and poor [CLIENT] emailed me a bit later asking if he’d done something wrong, since his computer wouldn’t recognize the DVD+R (“dee vee dee PLUS arr”) media he bought. Macs, of course, use DVD-R (“dee vee dee DASH arr”) media. The only thing he did wrong was assume consumer electronics companies were rational, or that they gave a shit about being comprehensible. The fact that the only difference between the two is a subtle, unpronounceable, nonalphabetic character is nothing short of criminal; what the hell were they thinking?
But that’s a whole ‘nother rant.