When I started MacStories in 2009, two pillars sustained the narrative around Apple: its “attention to detail” and the “just works” aspect of its software. Since iOS 7, it feels like those pillars have begun eroding at a quicker pace.
As an iOS geek, it's hard to disagree with the underlying premise of Marco Arment's widely linked Functional High Ground. Marco makes some solid points about Apple's attention slipping from software quality and stability to marketing and unrealistic deadlines:
“It just works” was never completely true, but I don’t think the list of qualifiers and asterisks has ever been longer. We now need to treat Apple’s OS and application releases with the same extreme skepticism and trepidation that conservative Windows IT departments employ.
I work on iOS every day. My iPad is my main computer and I now use my MacBook Air only to record podcasts with Skype. On average, I spend at least 10 hours a day using my iPad extensively for writing, reading, doing email, and other tasks. With this kind of usage, I, like others, noticed that iOS 7 was full of instability issues and graphical glitches. I called it a bitter medicine that was needed to rebuild iOS from the ground up. Last year, I called out on numerous occasions problems in iOS 8 for random reboots, Health.app data storage, file coordination, iCloud Drive, and share sheets.
Apple has always shipped bugs. But, in the past year it feels like obvious and highly detrimental ones have crept into the final releases of iOS and OS X, and that shouldn't have happened. Especially because the company doesn't want to ruin its reputation for good software ahead of the Watch.
- I don't know the reason behind my perception of increasingly unstable software. Could be tight deadlines; could be internal conflicts and misaligned priorities; could be that bugs have been amplified by the rough transition to iOS 7.
- I don't know the extent of instability and bugs on Yosemite. Like I said, I primarily use iOS these days.
- More importantly, I don't know if most people notice the problems that geeks are more likely to come across and write about.
The reality is that it's hard to come up with a single reason for Apple's modern software woes. And the most likely explanation is that they're the result of a series of trade-offs, deadlines, and wrong decisions that contributed to the overall product.
Which brings me to the argument that “Apple should slow down” and “have a Snow Leopard release” (not directly expressed in Marco's piece). After putting a lot of thought into this, I simply believe it won't happen and that we'd end up being concerned anyway.
People tend to cherish “the good old days”, and Snow Leopard is no exception. Snow Leopard wasn't without issues, but it grew into a relatively stable, reliable desktop operating system. In our Apple community, I feel like it's become somewhat of a myth to reminisce Snow Leopard and wish its process could be applied to any iOS or OS X update.
We're in 2015, and things have changed. I tried to imagine the reaction to Craig Federighi pointing to a big iOS 8 slide boldly stating “No New Features”, and it wouldn't be pleasant. I guess the mainstream media would be claiming that “Apple has lost its mojo”; developers would be upset for the lack of new functionalities and APIs to build new apps for. Six years after Snow Leopard, I don't think “normal people” would respond well to a bug-fixes-only iOS release either.
Geeks love bug fixes, but they don't make for great selling points. Had Apple striven to constantly refine its hardware and software just with fixes instead of raising the bar, we'd be here discussing better versions of the first iPhone and iOS 2 instead of iOS 8 and the iPhone 6. Iteration – another defining word of the Apple narrative – isn't only about bug fixes and refinements to existing features. It's about improvements and new directions. Every year.
What it comes down to, really, is balance. I believe that Apple used to be more disciplined at balancing its desire for new features and commitment to refinements.
My problem with most commentary to Marco's piece is the binary interpretation of Apple's software releases: that they should either do new stuff or fix bugs. That's too simplistic and shortsighted. Software is never bug-free, but there's a threshold where it's good enough to be shipped. I want to see Apple get better at releasing updates like iOS 8 and Yosemite with a better balance between novelty and stability. They shouldn't be mutually exclusive. I don't want to see Apple “taking a year off” to fix iOS, as that wouldn't be beneficial to the company and its developer community. Considering Apple's scale and the uncharted territory of several iOS 8 and Yosemite features, that's a tricky proposition.
That doesn't mean that I'm condoning Apple's software problems. My attitude is different: rather than taking the extreme position of wishing they'd just stop with new features, I'd like to see them growing into a company capable of better handling major releases like iOS 8.
Despite its problems, I'd take iOS 8 over an improved version of iOS 7 with no new features any day. My iPad has randomly rebooted and sometimes Apple apps crash, but I just can't work without extensions or widgets anymore. iOS 8 has changed the way I work on my iPhone and iPad and I've put up with its issues because, for me, the benefits still largely outweigh bugs.
Has Apple's software reputation fallen below the threshold of good enough/usually great for millions of customers? I don't know. It has for many, and it has for me in some ways, but I still like using iOS and I rely on it.
Ideally, there shouldn't be blog posts about losing the functional high ground or users not updating their phones in fear of bugs. But we should also hold Apple to higher standards and wish for more than a Snow Leopard release in 2015. A steady move forward should always be preferable to a lull in progress.