Comparing Time Machine and Versions

Recently, my colleague Mel Martin questioned some of the choices Apple’s designers made with Mac OS X Lion’s Versions. First, it looks a lot like Time Machine, which could confuse novice uses. Also, those who haven’t used Time Machine or Versions at all might be completely thrown by the “star field,” receding desktop and more.

In this post, I’ll compare and contrast Time Machine and Versions. Here’s how each application is launched, used and put away when finished. Finally, I’ll describe the similarities and differences in appearance. Let’s start with Time Machine.

Time Machine

Apple’s automatic backup software was introduced with Mac OS X 10.5, Leopard. Once enabled, it creates hourly, incremental backups of your entire Mac to an external drive (or a remote drive, if you’re using a service Dolly Drive). While it has limitations (Time Machine backups are not bootable and control over what’s backed up is limited), it’s a great option for many home users. Here’s how it works.


To begin, simply connect an external drive to your Mac via Firewire or USB [2. Or a Time Capsule.]. If it’s a new drive, Time Machine will ask to use it as a back up destination. Confirm the choice and you’re done. The first backup will take place shortly thereafter and subsequent backups will be scheduled automatically.


Here’s where Time Machine gets most useful. To enter recovery mode, click the Time Machine icon in your Finder’s menu bar [1. To enable the menu bar icon, open System Preferences and then click Time Machine. Next, select Show Time Machine Status in Menu Bar.] and select Enter Time Machine. Your desktop and all open application windows will recede off the bottom of your screen and you’ll enter what Apple calls “the star field.” See below.

How Time Machine Looks

There are four main features:

  • The version history, represented by a “stack” of windows.
  • The cancel button, date and Restore button along the bottom. The Cancel button lets you exit Time Machine, the Restore button will replace a lost file(s) while the centered date and time represents the point at which the frontmost file was saved.
  • Two navigation arrows for moving one window at a time.
  • A time line, which highlights various “jump points” in the backup history.

In the image above, you see a “stack” of Finder windows, each representing a certain point in time. In this instance, the Desktop is selected. By moving from one window to the next, you can browse the Desktop’s contents as they existed at various points. There are several ways to navigate.

  • Click any window in the stack to jump right to it.
  • Use the navigation arrows on the right to move one window at a time in either direction.
  • Mouse over the timeline on the far right to highlight various “jump points” in the Desktop’s save history.

To recover a file or set of files, click once to make your selection, then click the Restore button on the lower right. The Desktop will re-appear and place that file(s) just where it used to be.


While Time Machine lets you go “back in time” to find nearly any file on your Mac, Versions restricts that process to a single file’s version history. It looks very similar to Time Machine, with a few subtle differences. Before I get into that, let’s look at launching Versions.


First, you must be using Versions-compatible software on Mac OS X Lion. Much of Apple’s own software fits the bill, like Pages, Numbers, TextEdit and Preview. Third-party developers are coming on board, too. For example, Byword now supports Versions.

When Versions is and isn’t available

Before you can browse a document’s version history, you must designate a permanent save location. Lion’s Resume feature automatically saves a copy of compatible documents as you create them, even if you haven’t designated a permanent save location for that file by selecting Save from the File menu. For example, open a TextEdit document, type a few lines and then quit the application without saving. Finally, re-open TextEdit, and your file will re-appear intact.

At this point, there is no version history to browse. To create one, simply save the document. Once that’s done, you can enter Versions. Here’s how.

  • Click the document’s menu bar just to the right of its title.
  • A small, downward-facing triangle appears. Click it.
  • From the drop-down menu, select Browse All Versions…

From there, the star field will appear as it did with Time Machine and Versions is open.

How Versions looks

Again, Versions looks very similar to Time Machine. However, there are several differences. See below.

First, the single “stack” has been replaced by two. On the left is the current version of your document. On the right, its stacked version history.

The right-hand side features a click-able timeline, just as Time Machine did.

Along the bottom are two text fields and two buttons. First, the text fields. Beneath the current version of your document on the left, the field reads “Current Document.” The field on the right bears the date and time that the frontmost version was saved.

Two buttons also appear. The one on the left is labeled “Done” and allows you to exit Versions. The button on the right is labeled “Restore” and does just that.

You can restore an entire document or just a portion. To grab the whole thing, simply bring it to the front of the stack and click Restore. The Desktop will re-appear and that older version will be “dropped” onto the current version. To restore a portion, select just the bit you’re after then click Restore.

A note on locked documents

Versions lets you lock a document, preventing further edits. You can browse the version history of a locked document and even perform a restore. Just note that restoring a locked document to a previous version will unlock it.

Final comparison

These two solutions do look very similar and undoubtedly appear quite foreign to the novice user. Just understand that Apple is trying to emphasize the experience of “traveling back through time” to find an older version of your file(s). Specific differences include:

  • The number of “stacks” presented front-and-center. Time Machine shows one; Versions shows two.
  • The buttons and text along the bottom. Time Machine shows two buttons (Cancel and Restore) plus one text field (date and time). Versions offers two buttons (Done and Restore) plus two text fields (Current Document and the date of the frontmost historical version).

I hope this alleviates a little confusion around these admittedly similar applications, both in appearance and function. If there’s anything I missed, please let me know.

At Ease: Launchpad’s grandfather

At Ease was an alternative to the Mac Finder’s Desktop, developed by Apple in the 1990’s. It was meant to give new and young users one-click access to applications and documents they used most often, while restricting access to others. At Ease supported tabbed, color-coded browsing of software, files and removable media. An At Ease administrator could manage document sharing between account holders and other user-specific access privileges. An advanced workgroup version offered features like client configuration and network access control. Back when I worked at a Mac-friendly school, we used At Ease on several classroom machines.

It’s interesting to note that At Ease introduced multiple users to the Mac OS. It was released when Macs were running System 7, which did not support multiple users. However, At Ease’s multiple-user feature let folks log in with their credentials and create documents that would be hidden from other users. Of course, the Mac OS gained built-in support for multiple users with Mac OS 9.

Today I see aspects of At Ease in Launchpad, one of Mac OS X Lion’s marquee features. The tabs and document support are gone, as well as a UI that commandeers the Finder, but the single-click access to favorite apps is in place. In fact, even iOS shows the family resemblance with its no-frills, touch-to-open UI.

Launchpad certainly isn’t At Ease II, but it’s fun to step back and observe the evolution of Apple technology.

Apple didn’t “kill” these apps, hardware

The iCloud, iOS 5 and Mac OS X Lion announcements at WWDC this week have got many people declaring this app or that service dead. Much of this is an overreaction. Here’s a look at a few claims, and why I think they’re premature.

Safe For Now

1. The mouse. It’s true, there isn’t a single mouse in the Mac OS X Lion demo video. The only input devices we see are a laptop trackpad and a Magic Trackpad. Also, most of the video focuses on Lion’s multi-touch features. But none of this means the computer mouse is doomed. Here’s why.

First of all, gamers want one. You can’t launch World of Warcraft macros with a trackpad. Also, there’s no click-and-lift with a trackpad. Occasionally I’ll be re-locating something only to reach the end of the screen or even my physical desk. That’s when I lift the mouse, while maintaing the press, to gain some more room.

Finally, Apple was clever enough to make a mouse that’s essentially a little multi-touch surface.

2. Dropbox, SugarSync, etc. iCloud is amazing and I’m certain that it will mature into a game-changer. For now, however, popular file sharing services are safe. The biggest reason is collaboration. While iCloud pushes your music, photos, documents and more to your devices, it doesn’t allow for multi-user collaboration. I use Dropbox for many things, but most often for sharing files with others I’m collaborating with. iCloud won’t let me do that.

Also, iCloud doesn’t allow online editing. That could change, of course, but for now you can’t edit online.

3. Simple to-do apps. Reminders looks fantastic and I can’t wait to get my hands on it. The implementation of location-based reminders is brilliant. However, every person’s preferred method of managing and completing to-do items is as unique as his or her fingerprint. Some will love Reminders. Others won’t. Some will migrate from the likes of Remember the Milk and Due while others won’t. Apple’s solution looks fantastic, but it won’t kill every simple task manager in the store.

Now, that doesn’t mean everyone came out unscathed.

On Notice

1. RIM. BBM is something BlackBerry users have rightly lauded over iPhone users. In fact, some would call it the most compelling reason to use a BlackBerry vs. an iPhone. That advantage will officially evaporate once iOS 5 ships, as its new notifications implementation is stellar. RIM, you’re on notice.

2. Simple photo editing apps. Biggies like my beloved Camera+ should be OK, but quick-and-dirty crop-and-zoom apps are in trouble. The sheer convenience of accessing the camera from the lock screen will prevent many casual photographers from launching a photography app.

3. SMS plans. The danger is not imminent, but iMessage lets users send unlimited text messages via Wi-Fi or 3G from an iPad, iPhone or iPod touch to anyone else with one of those devices. Now, most of the people I know don’t have an iOS device, but that’s not the case for everybody. In fact, Scott Forestall announced that Apple has sold over 200 million iOS devices. For now there’s now real threat but who knows how iMessage will mature.


Mac OS 10.7 Lion’s secrets

I’m going to go on record and predict that the release of Mac OS 10.7 Lion will be a watershed moment for the desktop OS. The brief preview that Steve Jobs offered during the “Back to the Mac” was only the TIP of the tip of the iceberg.

You’ll notice that Steve didn’t boast about “100 new features” as he’s done in the past. Nor did he show too much. Go back and re-watch the video. His demonstrations were brief and succinct.

The event’s title was a fun play on words. At first, I assumed Apple was re-directing the consumer’s attention away from iOS and back to the Mac. But no, the message was that Apple’s iOS developers are applying what they’ve learned to the desktop OS. Expect Mac OS 10.7 to be even more iOS-like than you imagine.

I’ve said this before, but Apple excels at the process of observation, reflection and application. Its developers and engineers are eager to learn what they can, evaluate the outcome of that learning and apply the best lessons to future products. Almost no one does that as effectively as Apple.

For example, consider the gradual proliferation of touch input across the product line. The iPhone was announced in January of 2007, and became available in the U.S. in June of that year, releasing Multi-touch to the world. In 2008, the MacBook Pro got a button-free, glass trackpad with gestures support. The first small step had been taken.

In October of 2009, Apple released the Magic Mouse, which is basically a Multi-touch surface on top of a mouse. In June of 2010, Apple released the Magic Trackpad to bring touch to desktop machines. Now, every Apple computer is ready for touch input.

Meanwhile, the iPod touch was introduced in September of 2007 and the iPod nano gained touch support in September of 2010.

Additionally, consider the synergy that’s occurring among Apple software. The MobileMe web apps resemble their iOS counterparts. The iLife ’11 apps offer full-screen mode and support for swipe, pinch, zoom, etc. via the input hardware previously discussed. Plus, a Mac App Store is about a month-and-a-half away.

Finally, the biggest hint of all stands before us like Arthur C. Clarke’s monolith. The iPad is the most significant glimpse of the future of the Mac OS that we have. Let me be clear about this: I’m not talking about a synthesis of operating systems. Both the Mac OS and iOS will continue to exist. Just expect the best of the iOS to find a home on the Mac.

At this point Apple is three years into the refinement of iOS since the public release. Be assured that Mac OS 10.7 still has many secrets to share, and when it’s finally released, will blow us away.