Why is John Hodgman smiling? Data loss isn't the only Snow Leopard problem

If Snow Leopard, the latest version of the Mac operating system released late last August, were seriously plagued with bugs, writes a volunteer contributor to Apple's discussion forum, the company would be besieged with complaints. But that may very well be the problem, as evidenced by this screenshot from a Snow Leopard user who attempted to formally report his problem to Apple through his operating system, and was met with this message: "An error has occurred. Please report the error to Apple Inc. by emailing the error detail to [email protected]"

As the user reported on Apple's forum, "I'd laugh if I wasn't in an apoplectic rage."

Apple has reportedly acknowledged the existence of a critical data loss error affecting numerous Snow Leopard users, although the company actually has yet to release a complete statement on the issue. As a result, The Unofficial Apple Weblog has resorted to taking a reader poll, asking readers when they believe Apple can fully resolve this issue for release 10.6.2 (developer builds for which are now being distributed). About a quarter of TUAW's readers are confident Apple can roll things up by the week of October 26.

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As this situation continues to develop, there is now one big issue and at least three subsidiary issues that branch from it. The main problem concerns the apparent fact that Snow Leopard is deleting the wrong data when exiting a Guest account.

In Mac OS X, the Guest account was devised as a convenient way for a non-authorized user to be able to use the computer with limited privileges, in such a way that no permanent changes or extra files remain when the user logs off. But since Snow Leopard's release, a growing number of users are discovering that the system is deleting the wrong account: Their main user accounts are missing, along with most of the data stored under those accounts.

Why this problem was not discovered during testing (assuming testing even occurred) is baffling. In the absence of raw data from Apple to help users resolve or avoid the issue, once again, Mac users are left with independent sources and volunteer contributors to Apple's forums to help them out.

Based on what those folks have been able to compile, here is what we've been able to assemble thus far: The problem seems to be concentrated among users who have upgraded to version 10.6.1 from earlier versions. The theory there is that the format of the existing Guest account may not have been upgraded to conform to the new version of the operating system.

Mac users who upgraded to version 10.5 Leopard once before noticed something unusual in the same category, but not as destructive: After upgrading, their main accounts' home directories appeared to be missing. It turns out that they were only moved to a temporary location, and that the upgrade process for some neglected to relocate contents from the /home-preserved directory that Leopard created and the new /home directory. It took a little prestidigitation for users to resolve that problem, but in that case, data was not lost.

But the existence of the problem itself suggests that Apple is changing the structure of user accounts with new releases (which is a likely reason why Leopard would have been relocating user's files in the first place). Theoretically, code that was designed from the ground up to handle a new account structure may be disrupting the old one, in situations where the upgrade process to Snow Leopard failed to make the appropriate change -- as appears to be the case with the Guest account.

The three subsidiary issues arising in the wake of the Guest account problem are, in and of themselves, quite serious, though in terms of possible damage they pale by comparison. First, users who are genuinely trying to restore their data using Time Machine, Apple's built-in backup utility, are discovering it didn't back up their complete contents. According to one Web developer's report, Web pages associated with users' accounts do not appear to have been restored, and were probably not backed up to begin with.

A second issue that's probably unrelated technically is being given extra weight with regard to Snow Leopard's other problems: Users of the Mac's Airport wireless devices are reporting continually dropped connections only since having upgraded to Snow Leopard. Several volunteers have suggested any number of solutions including upgrading router firmware and changing the format of security keys to something stronger, but no solution seems permanent.

What may relate this issue to the bigger issue of account deletion, if anything, is this one common thread: Folks who believe their solution is fixed (their Airport stops dropping connections) only come to discover the problem un-fixes itself after their machine is powered down or hibernated. As one afflicted Mac user writes, "Something tells me that Airport just isn't meant to be cycled off and on numerous times a day to reestablish a connection."

Another potentially common thread has to do with external hard drives, many of which are connected using Airport. Many Snow Leopard upgraders are reporting they cannot launch their Finder application for these drives -- specifically, they're receiving a message that reads, "The application Finder.app can't be opened - 10810."

Some users report being able to reconnect to their external drives and launch Finder, but only after uninstalling whatever drive they're using for their continual Time Machine backup. And once again, in cases where users appear to have found solutions, their fixes mysteriously disappear after having powered down or hibernated their systems. "Now have the choice of no Finder or no backup," writes one user. "We need an answer from Apple."

As with other cases in the past, we're seeing some independent contributors to Apple's forums who respond to complaints by coming to Apple's rescue. For example, some contributors have now taken to responding to demands that Apple issue a solution to the Guest account debacle by citing Apple's EULA, specifically the section headed, "9. Limitation of Liability."

That's the section that states that by using the Mac in the first place, you agree that Apple cannot possibly harm you with serious intent. The section reads, in part, "In no event shall Apple's total liability to you for all damages (other than as may be required by applicable law in cases involving personal injury) exceed the amount of fifty dollars ($50.00). The foregoing limitations will apply even if the above stated remedy fails of its essential purpose."

One can imagine Justin Long seated behind a desk in front of a queue full of complaining users, and passing out fifties.

But throughout the Apple forums, perhaps for the first time, there appears to be a split in the ranks, where not everyone is rushing to the company's defense as if it's the one being damaged. One user bit by both the Guest account and Time Machine problem reported she had grown so comfortable with the idea of just having a Mac that she never really thought she'd have to learn about using it to the extent she has in the past few weeks.

And another user, in exasperation after being bitten by "Error 10810" for the last time, simply shouted, "This is Mac for God's sake!"

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