The perceived decline in Apple’s software quality

Dr Drang (via John Gruber):

I think a lot of us have lost our spirit, and that’s a problem for Apple. Apple may not think so — its financial statements would argue that it’s in great shape — but it’s being buoyed by an excellent run of hardware releases and a certain amount of inertia. Eventually, though, it runs the risk of becoming another Microsoft, with users who do more complaining than praising. When a company’s best users lose their spirit, it loses their leverage.

I moderately agree. I still think that the use of the verb loss in the past tense — okay, present perfect — feels too final. It’s the same reason I generally agreed with Marco Arment’s article Apple has lost the functional high ground with that “has lost” being one major exception. I believe things to be still in a more flowing state. Just as I don’t think Apple “has lost” its functional high ground in an irreversible fashion, I don’t think a lot of us have irreversibly lost our spirit. In both instances I would rather use the present continuous form — Apple is losing (or may be losing) the functional high ground… A lot of us are losing our spirit… and so on. Nothing is (yet) final at this juncture. You may think I’m being incredibly pedantic here, that it’s a matter of semantics. Well, yes, it’s exactly semantics what makes an article feel like an “Apple is doomed!” piece rather than a more constructive analysis.

Now that I clarified that point, let’s move on.

I’m a long-time Mac user. I’ve known about Apple since the days of the Apple ][ and I finally started using Macs in 1989. Many eminent voices in the current debate over Apple’s software have expressed their frustration at what is generally described as a decline in the quality of Apple’s offerings, the main reason basically being that Apple has a lot on its plate and that it has imposed on itself a pace it just can’t keep up with. (Arment said it best: The problem seems to be quite simple: they’re doing too much, with unrealistic deadlines.)

As a long-time Mac user, as someone who has used almost every version of the Macintosh system software (from System 5 to the latest Mac OS X version), I can say that there have always been little bugs and annoying things in Apple’s software, even when Apple had less on its plate and was developing software at a more leisurely pace than now. Just the other day, while researching information related to the Macintosh SE for a personal project, I stumbled on an archived technical article in the Apple Knowledge Base which explained a serious data corruption problem I encountered first-hand back in 1989 which I simply couldn’t figure out at the time. The article’s summary says it all: A problem was discovered when HD SC Setup Version 1.3 was used to initialize a hard disk inside certain Macintosh SE computers. This recalibration problem may have, in rare cases, caused a loss of data. (HD SC Setup is an old Apple disk utility software, let’s say the grandfather of OS X’s Disk Utility).

I don’t know how rare those cases of data loss actually were — these things were a bit harder to establish in 1989, before the Web — but if you were among those affected by that bug, believe me, it was a far more serious annoyance that any of the problems reported with Yosemite or other first-party applications. Can you imagine using your Mac, saving documents and work files believing everything is fine, only to discover that certain files are corrupted/inaccessible due to that hard drive formatting bug?

If that example seems too specific and remote to you, a more recent serious issue you may remember was the FireWire bug affecting Mac OS X 10.3.0 (Panther), where FireWire drives that used the Oxford Semiconductor 922 bridge chipset experienced loss/corruption of data when connected to a Mac running that version of Panther. (This Macintouch special report is a good refresher of that case.)

The truth is, if we put the Mac OS operating system’s history under a microscope, we’ll find a lot of annoying little (and not so little) issues, system crashes, conflicts among extensions, memory address and bus errors forcing several restarts during a session, and so on. So why did we long-time Mac users put up with all that, then? Because of the user experience, I believe. Because despite the bumps on the road here and there, the Mac road was still the best road to follow. Or, put more cynically, the total amount of the occasional annoyances wasn’t enough to affect the general level of satisfaction of working with Mac OS. Thanks to this, a lot of Mac users endured critical transitions such as the passage from 68K to PowerPC, the transition from Mac OS 9 to Mac OS X, and the switch from PowerPC to Intel.

The pre-OS X era, however, was also a simpler time. The classic Mac OS wasn’t as complex as OS X, and outside the system software Apple produced fewer applications in-house than today. During the 1990s there were ClarisWorks/AppleWorks and FileMaker Pro, both coming from Claris, which was a subsidiary wholly owned by Apple (a practical approach for compartmentalising software development, surely). Today, in comparison, Apple produces a lot of different applications outside the Mac operating system, many of them being sophisticated, professional-grade applications: Aperture, Final Cut Pro, Logic Pro, Motion, then Apple Remote Desktop, Xsan, and of course the two product suites formerly identified as iWork and iLife, which include Keynote, Pages, Numbers and iPhoto, iMovie and GarageBand. Not to mention iCloud and all the related online services. Like them or not, these are all complex applications with an incredible amount of features. And this is just the Mac platform. Then there’s iOS and related apps, and now we must also add the Apple Watch software and related apps.

What I’m trying to say is that, if we stop and consider all this from a rational standpoint, if we consider the sheer amount of software Apple has on its plate today, if we consider the relatively low number of engineers Apple has working on all of this software (OS X included), if we consider the pace Apple is keeping today with everything it produces (both software and hardware)… it’s amazing that things are going this well. I don’t think another company with the same scope, resources, products and in-house R&D as Apple could do much better in the same situation. If we could stop for a moment and take the time to go through each Mac OS X version with a fine-tooth comb, we would find frustrating bugs and user interface inconsistencies in each and every one of them. If we had the time to collect samples from discussion forums on Apple’s site and from major Mac forums around the Web, we would see a lot of users complaining of issues, problems, incompatibilities, etc., introduced after every major (and sometimes minor) OS X release.

But looking at things from a more emotional, more personal standpoint, something has indeed changed. Above I said that, in the past, us long-time Mac users were more willing to put up with flaws in the Mac operating system and first-party applications because the total amount of such occasional annoyances wasn’t enough to affect the general level of satisfaction of working with Mac OS. I suspect that this perceived decline in the quality of Apple’s software products (OS X included) is more related to the nature of the flaws/bugs/annoyances, than the sheer number of those. In other words, it’s not that Apple’s software is quantitatively more buggy today than, say, in the Mac OS 8-9 era, but the issues are (or feel) more critical, and that in turn affects the general level of satisfaction of working with the Mac.

When a new OS X version introduces issues that were absent in the previous one, that doesn’t go unnoticed, especially when such issues — like Wi-Fi reliability — are taking two minor OS X releases to be fixed. When a new OS X version makes your Mac feels more sluggish than it was in the previous version, that perception clouds whatever new exciting features the new OS X version brings to the table.

On a personal level, this paragraph in Marco Arment’s Apple has lost the functional high ground resonated a lot:

We don’t need major OS releases every year. We don’t need each OS release to have a huge list of new features. We need our computers, phones, and tablets to work well first so we can enjoy new features released at a healthy, gradual, sustainable pace.

Also, I may have not lost yet the ‘spirit’ Dr Drang talks about, but in recent times I admit that my enthusiasm — not really towards Apple’s software in general but Mac OS X specifically — has indeed waned a bit.

My general complaint towards Mac OS X is more about the focus than the quality itself. If I have to pinpoint a timeframe, I’d say that it was sometime around the release of 10.8 that I started wondering where OS X was going, but for me the excitement surrounding the release of a new major version of Mac OS X had probably peaked with 10.6 Snow Leopard — the last release I felt really improved things on my Mac. As I wrote in Wi-Fi degradation after Mac OS X Snow Leopard:

In recent years, however, I’ve grown wary of new OS X versions mainly because I’ve seen first-hand how they managed to cause problems even to users who, like me, kept their Mac OS X machines clean and perfectly fine-tuned with just the best-quality apps and tools.

Let’s call this the practical side of my diminished enthusiasm towards Mac OS X. The philosophical side, as I was saying, is that I’ve started perceiving a lack of focus in the designing and building of Mac OS X, and I’ve started to think that this yearly upgrade schedule is causing Mac OS X more harm than good in this regard. With OS X Yosemite, for the first time in my long history as a Mac user, I’ve asked myself this question: Why should I upgrade, really? What’s so compelling about it? (And I waited in queue to purchase the box of Mac OS X Tiger back then. And I used to be very eager to upgrade to a new Mac OS X version, often not even bothering backing up because “It’s Apple, what could go wrong?”)

My lukewarm enthusiasm towards OS X Yosemite, despite what you might think, has nothing to do with the fact that I can’t enjoy its most touted features because my main machine lacks the necessary hardware (it’s a mid-2009 MacBook Pro)[1]. It’s this returning, nagging feeling of inconsistency, of a system that has been improved in a few places but feels like a working beta in others. Thoughtful details mixed with afterthoughts. Eye-candy over usability and functionality. The yearly upgrade cycle that Apple has forced on Mac OS X also imposes the search for new features, for something new to add to the OS X bucket every year. And this brings lack of focus (as I perceive it) and a peculiar acceleration that, if not kept in check, might hurt that very integration between hardware and software that’s always been Apple’s strongest advantage.

My favourite part of Gruber’s recent piece, that’ll help you understand what I’m saying, is this (emphasis mine):

But in avoiding the problems of stagnation and hubris, it feels like Apple has run into a different problem: nothing ever feels settled and stable. If the pattern Apple has established the last two years holds, by the time the loose screws get tightened in iOS 8 and OS X 10.10, we’ll be getting developer betas of iOS 9 and OS X 10.11 at WWDC. And as Guy English has keenly remarked numerous times, the annual schedule means that by now — that is, January — a lot of engineering talent in Cupertino is being directed to next year’s OS releases, leaving less talent on the task of tightening the remaining loose screws in last year’s.

The yearly upgrade cycle makes certainly more sense with iOS, and indeed, at this point in time, I feel iOS development to be more focussed than OS X’s. The innovation pace for iOS hardware is much more dramatic; the mobile industry imposes such pace, therefore this relentless research and addition of new features in the software makes a lot of sense for iOS because there is proportionally more innovation in the hardware year after year. But I don’t entirely see the point of forcing a similar pace on Mac OS X. Apple could release OS X versions following an It’s ready when it’s ready approach, and I’m sure that a lot of Mac users would be ultimately fine with that, especially if that brought more focus, consistency and stability in the operating system. Mac OS X Tiger was around for two years and half before Leopard arrived, and went through eleven minor releases. Perhaps there were complaints of stagnation back then, but the truth is that Tiger was a great OS X release which worked consistently well in all supported machines, even the slower Macs with G3 processors. In the period between Tiger and Snow Leopard in particular, the changes and improvements in the operating system, and the features that were added, felt coherent, felt ‘part of the plan’, felt less arbitrary and less ‘new for the sake of new’ than what we have now with OS X Yosemite.

 


  • 1. Although that certainly doesn’t help, either.

 

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About Riccardo Mori

Writer. Translator. Mac consultant. Enthusiast photographer. • If you like what I write, please consider supporting my writing by purchasing my short stories, Minigrooves or by making a donation. Thank you!