On Sunday night, technologist/blogger/podcaster Marco Arment published a post which said that Apple’s yearly pace for software updates was resulting in the company shipping buggy products which were hurting its reputation for “it just works” reliability. His item sparked lots of discussion, some of it from folks who pretty much nodded their heads in agreement.
Me, I thought that Arment had raised an important and complex issue, but that I needed to mull it over before forming my own opinion.
While I was mulling, Arment had second thoughts about his piece, including its title: “Apple has lost the functional high ground.” He wrote a follow-up saying that he’d come off as sensationalistic and more critical of Apple than he’d intended, and that in retrospect he wished he’d never written the item. (I’m glad he did, though.)
Everyone who reads Arment’s two posts and uses Apple products will have a different reaction, based on his or her anecdotal experiences. I have my own frustrations, especially with iOS 8. (Examples: Third-party keyboards often fail to pop up, and AirDrop remains so flaky for me I’m never sure whether it’s going to work.) But so far, these frustrations seem to be following the same cycle they always have. Apple releases new software. New software is buggy. Apple gradually squashes bugs. Then a period of calm. Then another major upgrade with a new set of irritants.
Still, I can’t make the case that Apple software feels just as robust and seamless as it was in the era when the company wasn’t trying to upgrade both iOS and OS X–each wildly ambitious, each running on a variety of devices–every year. Like Arment said in his first post, it may simply be impossible to ship major new versions of software as complex as Apple’s current products every 365 days or so and have them just work right out of the gate.
Bottom line: Even if you’re not fed up, it’s reasonable to be concerned.
In the initial post, Arment blamed the decline he’s seen in Apple software quality on pressures brought about by marketing. That’s got to be one big factor. It’s certainly a lot easier for Apple to promote phones, tablets, and PCs that have dozens of new features than it would be if they did pretty much the same stuff that last year’s models did.
But at least five other meaningful factors are at play:
Competition. The rivalry between Apple’s iOS and Google’s Android is one of the most entertaining, productive, and exciting ones in the whole history of personal technology. For the most part, it’s been great for Apple, great for Google, and great for everybody who uses products from either company. But Google is such a fierce, fast-moving, and intrepid competitor–and the two companies are neck-and-neck in so many areas–that it’s no wonder Apple is running as fast as at possibly can.
Openness. iOS is still more locked-down than Android, but iOS 8 is by far the most open version so far, with support for third-party keyboards, widgets, and a variety of other third-party integrations which go under the blanket moniker of Extensibility. It’s tough to let third-party developers get into the innards of an operating system while simultaneously preserving the seamlessness which Apple strives for.
The hardware cycle. Apple releases new phones roughly once a year. The company always ships a new version of iOS at the same time as its new phones. In 2013 and 2014, as it brought iOS devices and Macs into closer alignment, it also shipped a new version of OS X at the same time. In other words, the hardware tail wags the software dog. And it wags it at a rapid clip.
The platform of platforms. More than ever, Apple isn’t selling phones, tablets, and computers. It’s selling an experience that spans all of them, thanks to new Continuity features such as the ability to start an email on one device and complete it on another, or answer an iPhone call on your Mac. Which forces the company into releasing vast quantities of new software at once.
The sheer enormity of it all. iOS 8 has hundreds of new features and 4,000 new hooks for developers–piled atop everything from previous versions. The more complex a piece of software, the less likely it is that every single bit of it will work perfectly.
So what is to be done? In the past, Apple has repeatedly shown itself capable of slowing down in the interest of better software. In 2007, for instance, as it was finishing up the first iPhone, it diverted engineers who had been working on OS X Leopard and delayed that operating system. Two years later, it released Leopard’s successor, Snow Leopard–an operating system which was mostly about polishing up under-the-hood stuff in the interest of smoother computing.
The quote from the press release Apple issued when it first revealed Snow Leopard remains startling:
“We have delivered more than a thousand new features to OS X in just seven years and Snow Leopard lays the foundation for thousands more,” said Bertrand Serlet, Apple’s senior vice president of Software Engineering. “In our continued effort to deliver the best user experience, we hit the pause button on new features to focus on perfecting the world’s most advanced operating system.”
That happened in a different era, though: before Apple offered so many products, before it started intermingling them, and before Android was truly established as an extremely competent arch-rival.
I cheerfully admit that I don’t have any clever proposal for what Apple should be doing differently. But with or without the mini-firestorm which Arment unwittingly created, I hope Apple was already chastened enough by issues such as its phone-crippling iOS 8.0.1 upgrade to be working on a strategy to make future software transitions less glitchy. When iOS 9 and the next version of OS X roll around, it would be a shame if Arment felt the need to retract his retraction.