Sun 2/17 OS X's Most Underestimated Feature

Time Machine

When I was a Mac Genius in 2004, Mac OS X 10.5 Leopard had yet to be released, people were not backing up. When a Mac came to the Bar that wasn’t booting, that was making strange clicking sounds, I got scared. The diagnosis was simple, the hard drive hard failed. The repair was straightforward, the hard drive had to be replaced. But someone would have to tell the customer that if there wasn’t a backup, they had lost everything. That someone was me.

Early on in my career as a Mac Genius I would delay. Stall by taking the Mac into the back room to run “tests,” and build up my confidence. I knew this stall tactic was only wasting the customer’s time. If the hard drive was dead, there was nothing I could do. Later on in my Genius career, I learned to confront my fear by immediately popping the question, “do you have a backup?” If the customer answered yes, I felt relieved. But far to often the answer was no. Data had been lost.

When you stand behind the Bar at an Apple Store, you represent Apple and their partners. You can’t use the excuses common to IT Professionals, like so-and-so hard drive manufacturer is crap, or Apple made a bad batch. When you stand behind the Bar you are so-and-so, you are Apple, and customers stare you straight in the eye and want to know why you failed them. Why their data is gone.

As geeks, nerds, and IT Professionals we all know better. Backup is part of using any computer, but for the longest time it was something we would have to seek out ourselves. Either by saving a second copy to a floppy disk, or installing a special program to backup for us, we would have to take the initiative to backup our own files. Nobody was going to do it for us. We would have to figure it out ourselves.

But what if we didn’t know any better? What if we were just like everyone else? The people who bought a computer. Took it home, and expected it to work tomorrow, like it did today, yesterday, and the day before that. People not interested in tech specs, the velocity of a spinning hard drive platter, or the margin of error between success and a head crash. The kind of people Apple wants as customers. Who was going to tell them about backup, and how to do it?

Before the release of Mac OS X 10.5 Leopard, Apple sold backup software as part of its .Mac suite of internet services. At the Apple Store we used to sell .Mac on the promise of the backup software alone.1 The problem was Backup.app was not very good. Customers needed to download, install, configure, and schedule the software before it did any good. In addition the capacity of the available backup destinations was too small. You couldn’t fit all of your documents, music, videos, and photos on .Mac’s backup servers, and no one wanted to dedicate the time needed to backup these files across dozens of DVDs. During a time when the Mac was promoted as the “Digital Hub,” Apple needed an integrated backup solution that was easy to use, and could fit all of a customer’s data in one place. Time Machine was the answer.

On October 27th, 2007 Apple released Mac OS X 10.5 Leopard, and along with it Time Machine, an innovative new way of backing up a customer’s data. Here is what John Siracusa had to say about Time Machine back then.2

Time Machine is the best new feature in Leopard, perhaps the best feature ever added to Mac OS X. Put simply, Time Machine is a backup and recovery system that people will actually use. It effectively cuts the Gordian Knot of the age-old backup dilemma for normal users: “I know I should back up, but I never do. I wouldn’t even know how to do something like that anyway.” Well, enough of that. If you have more than one hard disk attached to your Mac, it’s more difficult not to use Time Machine than to use it.

Using Time Machine is easy.

The first time two or more hard disks are connected to a Mac running Leopard, a dialog box will appear asking the user to select a backup disk. Choose one and you’re done; no further action is needed.

Time Machine keeps incremental backups by only backing up the files that change on a regular schedule.

  • Hourly backups for the past 24 hours.
  • Daily backups for the past month.
  • Weekly backups until your drive is full.

Data can be restored from the Finder, Mac OS X boot disc, Mac OS X restore partition, or by using the space themed full screen Time Machine app. Time Machine makes backing up fun, and adds value by preserving past versions of customer’s data all in one place. House on fire? Need to save your important documents, music collection, home movies, and photo albums? Just grab your Time Machine backup disk and run for the door.

I was not behind the Bar for the introduction of Leopard or Time Machine. (I left Apple before the transition to Intel in 2006.) But I do wish I could have been there to see the relieved look in my customer’s faces when I told them there data was safe, because they were using Time Machine. That reassurance alone is why I believe Time Machine is the most underestimated feature in Mac OS X, and John Siracusa agrees. Time Machine saves data.

Before 10.5, I never met a non-geek Mac user who did regular backups. Nowadays, many of the non-geek Mac users I meet are using Time Machine. It’s pretty amazing since these people almost always had to also spend extra money to buy a (usually crappy, USB) external hard drive. But they’re doing it. Very smart.


  1. Well that and the McAfee Virex software new Mac switchers thought they had to have. 

  2. If you have not read John Siracusa’s Leopard Review you really should. It is one of his best.