The Uptime Miracle

How one subtle improvement has changed the way we think about computers. When’s the last time you had to restart your laptop?

While researching another post, I came across a remarkable old forum thread. It’s from the Macworld site, and it was started in 2002. The first post goes like this:

I’ve recently fixed a modem/gui freezeup problem and haven’t had to reboot since..more than 13 days now….Does anyone know what the uptime record for MacOS X consumer is?

His forum buddies quickly chimed in with their personal records:

“13 days, 17:19”

“15 days, 15:58”

“10 Days without a sleep or restart.”

“22 days is my longest stretch without a reboot/crash.”

One user spoke of a legend he heard once, maybe:

“I recall some on Macfixit forums talking about six weeks uptime, and that was on 10.0.4.”

Over at the MSFN forums, I found the Microsoft version of this conversation. “Whats the longest uptime you had for a windows 9x box?” asked user Togermano. His record was two weeks. Other posters boasted of “30 days,” “several days” and “about day.”

Crazy, right? 2002 was only ten years ago, and people were using Windows 9x machines well into the 2000s. But try to remember the last time you had to restart your computer.

I checked — the last time I rebooted my MacBook Air was for a system update on June 12th, and before that because it ran completely out of power two months prior. I remember typing “uptime” in the terminal of my last laptop on a whim last year and finding out that it had been on, or asleep, for over four months. This is normal now!

When the people on these forums talk about uptime, they’re talking about time between crashes. My downtimes were either predictable or planned — I haven’t had to restart this laptop for FATAL ERROR reasons since I started using it in February. Ditto (almost) for my Windows 7 desktop, which I’ve only had to restart a handful of times in the last year; I do turn it off sometimes, because electricity is expensive.

Today’s PCs and Macs stay on as long as you keep them plugged in, and iPhones and iPads only need to be restarted when they’re updated. Infinite uptime has allowed the volatility of computers — at any given time there is a LOT that can go wrong — to fade so fully into the background that terms “stability” and “boot time” have all but disappeared from consumer electronics advertisers’ vocabularies.

I don’t know when we started taking infinite uptime for granted, but we do. I’d estimate it was Mac OS 10.3 or thereabouts for Apple users, Windows XP for PC, and iPhone OS 2.0 for smartphones. It was gradual, anyway, and not very well publicized — “our product works like it’s supposed to now” isn’t the kind of message Apple and Microsoft want to be sending people.

But however it happened, it happened: personal computers became as reliable as servers. A computer user doesn’t need to think about booting up and shutting down anymore, or habitually click on the save icon every five minutes. That part of the computing experience — the ragged, unpredictable part — slipped away, and nobody really noticed. As it was meant to be.

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