Thoughts on real, designed and perceived obsolescence

I’m typing this post on a MacBook Air – a pretty common device for writers, journalists and other people who need a slim, light and powerful portable computer to get their work done. But how many people do you know who use a computer that’s homing in on ts tenth birthday? My 2011 11-inch MacBook Air is still a great workhorse. Sure, it doesn’t do everything the latest models do. It passes the good enough test but keeping this laptop working has taken some effort.

I bought this computer second hand from a student who’d finished their degree and was done with it. The model was already discontinued – Apple killed this particular MacBook Air variant which is a shame as it’s a great size for a second system to use while travelling.

I upgraded the storage and replaced the battery. These were both relatively easy upgrades and there are lots of tutorials on YouTube to guide the way if you’re thinking about doing the same thing to your portable Mac. I purchased the storage and battery from MacFixIt in Australia. OWC offers the same kits if you’re in the USA.

The software problem

The ageing MacBook Air I’m using has been a reliable, albeit low-powered, workhorse. But I hit a snag. Apple has a policy of ‘only’ supporting devices for a limited time with new operating system releases. The knock-on from that is that software vendors only support a limited number of macOS versions.

Typically, Apple supports hardware with current operating systems for about seven years or so and software vendors support the three most recent versions of macOS.

When Apple released Big Sur (aka macOS 11), I found myself outside Apple’s support window as well as Microsoft’s. Once Big Sur was released, software vendors dropped support for High Sierra (macOS 10.13) and suddenly my reliable workhorse found itself tossed onto Apple’s obsolete list.

The 11-inch MacBook Air is still ‘good enough’

Never mind that the keyboard is better than many of the portable Macs released over the last few years and the display was still crisp and clear. Sure, the Core i5 processor is not particularly speedy. And 4GB is pretty skinny for modern apps. But for using a web browser, Microsoft Word, editing and displaying presentations from PowerPoint and handling emails and social media, it’s perfectly adequate.

Would I use the 11-inch MacBook Air as my daily driver? Nope! But for dashing out a few things while on a plane or working at a library or coffee shop it’s perfect. It’s light, has a couple of USB ports in case I need to copy files via USB and has good enough 802.11n Wi-Fi. The FaceTime camera isn’t anything to write home about but, again, it’s fine for occasional use.

Solving the software challenge

As far as I can tell, there really isn’t any good reason for Apple to stop allowing users to decide for themselves whether they should upgrade a device to a newer operating system.

I can accept that my ‘mini Macbook’ won’t be able to do everything that a newer model can do. And I’m intimately acquainted with the impact of Moore’s Law on performance. But, in Apple’s view, I’m stuck with a great laptop that can’t even receive the latest security update much less a fresh coat of operating system paint.

Fortunately, a clever boffin, called DosDude, has solved that problem.

DosDude, aka Collin, has created a series of ‘patcher’ tools that allow you to upgrade unsupported Macs with later versions of MacOS. While DosDude hasn’t, yet, built a solution to get Big Sur running on the old MacBook Air but I’m now running macOS Catalina – the second last version released by Apple.

Now, I’m able to run the latest, safe version of Microsoft Office and receive software updates from Apple so my software is patched.

Running safe software should not be hard

All of this took more effort than it should. Running an up to date operating system is not (just) abut wanting to stay in touch with what’s current. It’s about ensuring I’m running safe software and not consigning a perfectly adequate computer to the scrap heap.

The 11-inch MacBook Air might be older and slower than current hardware. But DosDude’s work proves there’s no technical reason Apple can’t make current versions of macOS work on older computers. The experience might not be “Apple perfect” but it’s not terrible.

I grew up using computers at a time when people used to say there was no processor Intel could make that Microsoft couldn’t slow down. Recent versions of macOS might not be slick on old hardware. But it works.

I can understand software makers only supporting a limited number of operating system releases. But Apple’s approach to hardware seems to be a little tough.

I get that my computer is 10 years old. But it works flawlessly. And it doesn’t deserve to be scrapped.