Ever wondered what the worst error message you could encounter might be? This ranks pretty highly.
First of all, remember how people always told you to take backups, rather as you were advised to wear sunscreen? Well, they were right. Bear that in mind as I take you through on a journey of mild technology pain.
The high: Sierra
Having not seen any reports of gigantic showstopping bugs in the upgrade to Mac OS Sierra, I took the plunge the other day. Things were going fine. Everything worked. Nothing had crashed. Then I updated Numbers from 3.6.2 to 4.0, whose “new” features are apparently collaboration – and nothing much else.
Having done that, I tried to open one of my most-used spreadsheets, into which I have poured years of experience and hours of analysis. I’d had it open before the update, but (I think) had closed it before updating. (Whether it was open or not is immaterial; some other spreadsheets were open before the update and opened fine afterwards; some were closed before the update and opened fine afterwards; some were closed before and wouldn’t open afterwards.)
I was met with this response:
The low: Numbers
The spreadsheet can’t be opened “for some reason”?? What sort of error message is that??
But at least it offers the option to “Browse all versions”, which should be stored in iCloud, where the spreadsheet itself is stored. You then go into a Time Machine interface, and get this:
It’s “unable to open version”. This happens no matter how far back you want to go. You can try with lots of “versions”. Or you can realise you’re onto a lost cause and give up. At which point the “Time Machine” interface resolves itself into a rectangle, in which you find this message:
Well, thanks a lot. “For some reason.” How this ever got past any sort of quality assurance I cannot imagine. Did the engineer/s assign an out-of-bounds error code to the problem, and the operating system can’t decide what to say and so falls back to “for some reason”?
This is a giant screwup
Whichever; it’s a terrible, terrible experience for the user. You’re left unable to open the file, with no idea what has gone wrong, and no clues how to progress. If you had really valuable stuff in here, and no means of rolling back, you would be absolutely furious – justifiably so – with Apple.
Tracing the error
What has gone wrong here? You can dig into iWork files (Numbers, Pages, Keynote). They’re “packages”, which means that they’re folders disguised to look like files. Control-click on the file and you can “view package contents”, which in the case of this spreadsheet looks like this:
Turns out that all the meat is in “index.zip”. I made a copy on my Desktop and unzipped it:
That’s only a few files; the “Tables” folder contains 523 items. Which of these hundreds of items is at fault? One? Two? Two hundred? There’s no way of knowing. Given that none of the previous versions will load under this version of Numbers, it doesn’t matter how many of the files are screwed. You can’t get there from here.
Why you love your backups
I did try to get around this. Believe me. On an iPad (which hadn’t updated to the equivalent newer version of Numbers) I tried opening the original spreadsheet.
Oh. So I tried AirDrop to send the can-be-opened-from-iCloud spreadsheet from the iPad to the Mac. The AirDrop worked, but the Mac wouldn’t open it – same message as before. On the iPad, you can also export the file: your options are Numbers, Excel, PDF, or CSV.
Export in Numbers and AirDrop? Didn’t work.
Export in Excel and AirDrop? Worked – except that the various tables that had been on a single sheet were split out into separate sheets. Non-ideal.
So the iPad route wasn’t quite right.
But I wasn’t finished yet. Did you notice how I mentioned backups? Before upgrading, I had made a backup of my hard drive using SuperDuper! (highly recommended).
So I plugged in my backup drive – I’m always careful not to overwrite it until I’m confident a big OS update hasn’t screwed anything – and dug around for the old version of Numbers (v 3.6.2), and put that back in.
Open Numbers 362, try to open spreadsheet.
It opens. No muss, no fuss.
Worse than error messages: no error messages
In many ways, this is even worse. What’s the situation here? We have a newer version of Numbers on the Mac which cannot open an untouched version of a spreadsheet that the older version can open.
Together with the colossal stupidity of “for some reason” as an error message, a new version that randomly can’t open an old spreadsheet (but is fine with many others), even while the old one can, makes one think that whoever is in charge of Numbers, or iWork, isn’t getting it right.
A lot of it is down to the error message. If it said “because two of the files are corrupt” you might begin to understand. But of course it can’t be that, because the old version can read it. “Some reason” sounds vague – is vague – but in a sense, it’s accurate. Whatever the reason for being unable to open this file is, it’s quite elusive. I had initially thought that it was something to do with picture embeds, but the problem persisted when I got rid of those. (There’s nothing in the Console app about it, so Numbers clearly doesn’t want to share whatever its discomfort is with the file/s.)
Anyway. Having got the old version of Numbers installed, I could now open the old spreadsheet. Fine. I’ll stick with that, I thought.
The morning after the night before
Problem over, you think? Not at all. On returning to the iPad the next day, I found it had updated to the newer version of Numbers – the one with collaboration.
Guess what? That’s right: the iPad version no longer opened the old spreadsheet.
Computing often has these moments – when you feel as though you’re standing on a very rickety rope ladder across a gigantic chasm, halfway from each side, with little prospect of reaching either side safely, yet obliged to go in one direction or the other. The previous day I could open the spreadsheet on the iPad, but I couldn’t get it safely back to the Mac. Now I could open it fine on the Mac, but I couldn’t get the iPad to read it. Not really the world of device-independent operation that one dreams of.
But but but! There is a solution on the Mac. You can load the file on the old version of Numbers, and then in the File menu there’s the option to export it to a Numbers ’09 format. (No idea what’s so great/terrible about that.) Notice that that export option wasn’t available on the iPad.
Here’s what it looks like:
Worth a try, I thought. And indeed it was. I named the files created that way with an “09” suffix, and suddenly they opened on the iPad – with all the tables and charts intact.
Update: another tactic which I didn’t try, but which might work (I haven’t had the same problem again) is to log in to icloud.com and try to open or upload or similarly wrangle the file there. Make sure FIRST you have a backup of it, on a USB key or other cloud service; the greatest mistake is working on the only copy of an essential file.
This is one of the biggest WTF moments in an episode replete with them. I’ve reinstalled an older version of Numbers, and exported to an even older file version, in order to open the file on the newest version. It’s beyond bizarre.
Thankfully, it seems that there aren’t too many people having this problem; my own searches on the phrase “can’t be opened for some reason” turned up pretty much nothing. If we’re all lucky, then nobody will land on this page via a web search; you’ll all just be reading it for abstract interest, wondering how an operating system and a QA team can ever let “can’t be opened for some reason” be signed off as “OK for public consumption”. Apple puts a premium on its products and prides itself on its user interface; this, though, is one that got away, badly.
But what if you haven’t kept that backup of the Numbers app? In that case, I’m not able to offer any help. Perhaps you can find a friend who has a copy of the older version. Perhaps there’s a trustworthy download site. Perhaps you can get one by finding a Mac that hasn’t been updated and sending the version there. Perhaps you can rummage around in your Time Machine backup and reanimate the old version. Maybe you have a CD in your house with an older version. (Clutching at straws here, but I recognise that spreadsheets carry a lot of our lives nowadays.)
The simplest solution is not to update Numbers, which of course always feels like admitting defeat. The pragmatic solution is to export all your spreadsheets to the 09 format. The belt-and-braces solution (since this might be an iCloud problem) is to duplicate your spreadsheets on your hard drive, and export each into the 09 format – then you have three copies of them.
Whichever – I hope it goes well. And I hope never ever to run into “some reason” as the explanation for why an essential piece of content can’t be accessed. Fix it, Apple.