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Disastrous Bug Yields Key Lessons


A disaster struck a small number of Mac users earlier this month, and there are some lessons to be learned from it--lessons about reading instructions, about being prepared for computing catastrophes and about waiting awhile before installing new programs.

At the epicenter of the disaster is iTunes 2, the latest version of Apple's MP3 music software. On Nov.2, Apple posted iTunes 2 on its Web site, and a large number of Mac users promptly downloaded and installed it. Some regretted it: When they finished installing the new version, they found their hard drives had been erased.

Aside from electric shock, that's about as painful an experience as you can have with a computer.

The problem occurred with only the Mac OS X version of iTunes, and it surfaced only if users ignored Apple's instructions to delete any older versions of iTunes before installing the new version. If the iTunes installation program found a previous version, it was programmed to erase it for you. And here's where a bug takes flight: On Macs whose hard drives were set up in very specific ways, the installer erased everything on the hard drive.

To its credit, Apple responded quickly, yanking the OS X version of iTunes from its Web site on Nov.3 and posting a fixed version, iTunes 2.0.1, the next day. The Mac OS 9 version of iTunes 2 didn't have the bug.

And now, class, a closer look at today's lessons:

Read the instructions. ITunes 2 was accompanied by a Read Me file that instructed users to remove any older versions. Anyone who did so was immune to the installation bug. That doesn't excuse the bug, but it does underscore the importance of reading and following directions.

Prepare for the worst. A good backup routine and a well-stocked utility toolbox can help avoid computing disasters of all kinds. In this case, users who had backups could restore their erased drives.

Even more significant, users with file-recovery software could restore the erased drives. When a file is deleted--whether by you or a buggy program--the file's contents aren't actually removed from the hard drive. Only information about the file's physical location on the disk is deleted. It's akin to tearing out a book's table of contents instead of tearing out actual chapters: By flipping through the book's pages, you can reconstruct the table of contents.

File-recovery programs can perform this reconstruction, but only if you run them immediately after losing or accidentally deleting files. If you continue to use the drive, you risk overwriting information that could be recovered.

Consider adding two utility packages to your library: MicroMat's $97 TechTool Pro and Symantec's $129 Norton SystemWorks. Norton SystemWorks includes disk-recovery and virus-protection software as well as a fine backup program. And for OS X users, MicroMat's $69 Drive 10 diagnoses and repairs disks.

Wait a day or so. I know it's tempting to install an eagerly anticipated program the moment it becomes available. But it may not hurt to let others clear the minefield--to wait a couple of days and monitor Mac Web sites for any hints of trouble. The MacFixIt site, at, was a particularly excellent resource this time around.

Does the iTunes 2 disaster indicate a downward trend in Apple's quality control? Probably not--this bug was a subtle one. Indeed, the fact that it affected more than a handful of users is due to a remarkable combination of circumstances: Advanced users are likely to download brand-new programs, they're likely to install software without reading instructions, and they're likely to set up their systems in ways that made them vulnerable to this particular problem.

Bug-wise, it was the perfect storm: a rare confluence that proved disastrous for those whose eagerness led them into it.


Jim Heid is a contributing editor of Macworld magazine. He can be reached at


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