Apple, mistakes, quality, innovation, etc.

Tech Life

Craig Federighi, as quoted in this piece by Rick Tetzeli on FastCompany:

A world where people do not care about the quality of their experience is not a good world for Apple. A world where people care about those details and want to complain about them is the world where our values shine. That is our obsession.

Michael Tsai, back in August, in Learning from Apple’s Failures:

He’s saying the right things, but I’m not seeing this consistently come through in the products. Apple seems too unfocused, spread too thin, still in denial of how buggy their software has become. The iOS 9.3.4 update still hasn’t fixed the Camera audio bug, and it made my iPhone stop charging, at a very inconvenient time, so that I thought its Lightning port was damaged. Preview, long a reliable app, now regularly has drawing glitches and hangs. One of my apps hasn’t been up-to-date in the Mac App Store since May, and it is currently removed from sale, because of multiple backend store bugs. True or not, the perception is that the reality TV show and the car are distracting the company from working on the aging Mac lineup. Schiller’s triumphant “Can’t innovate anymore, my ass” line has become a punchline. The removal of the iPhone’s headphone jack seems like a parody of an Apple design decision. I want a new MacBook Pro, but at this point I’m more worried about the new keyboard and that Apple might do something more to make it less Pro, like remove Thunderbolt or the SD slot, than I am excited about what new features it might offer.

I feel exactly the same as Michael. I’m a long-time experienced Mac user. I’m not sure I would call myself a ‘pro’ user, because the way I use my Macs has always revolved around text processing, with frequent incursions into image editing & photo retouching, the occasional small project in iMovie or Final Cut Express, and the occasional gaming session. Mine are tasks that today’s non-Pro Macs could handle without much hassle. I love Macintosh computers of all vintages and I like to have a few finely-tuned machines around performing several different tasks and serving different purposes. While my main work machine, a 2009 MacBook Pro, is running current software and is still a dependable workhorse despite being seven years old, those secondary Macs are all PowerPC machines, most with a G4 processor, all running either Mac OS X Leopard (10.5.8) or Tiger (10.4.11), all manufactured between the years 2000 and 2004.

I mention this because my particular setup, a mix of old and newer hardware and software, may give me a certain perspective about the merits and flaws of ‘the new Apple’ versus ‘the old Apple’. And I can’t but confirm the impression that quality and focus have wandered a bit in recent years.

Whenever I’m working on one of my vintage G4 Macs, whenever I’m back using Mac OS X Tiger or Leopard, I very rarely encounter bugs or ‘surprises’. While I’m sure Tiger and Leopard aren’t perfect operating system versions where every single bug has been dealt with, the daily user experience on those machines appears to be seamless, and the environment extremely stable. When I wake one of my G4 PowerBooks from sleep, the reconnection to my home wireless network is instantaneous and reliable. On my MacBook Pro — even under the latest El Capitan minor update — it is still a hit-or-miss affair. Same with any Bluetooth peripheral that may be connected to the Mac.

Working with external displays doesn’t pose any kind of problem, and I’m able to connect/disconnect my PowerBooks to the bigger displays I own by simply removing the DVI-to-VGA or Mini DVI-to-VGA adapters (made by Apple), without having to put the computer to sleep or doing any other kind of voodoo procedure. To do the same with my MacBook Pro, I have to leave the MiniDisplay-to-VGA adapter connected, and disconnect the display’s VGA cable from the adapter’s VGA port. Because if I don’t do that, when I reconnect the adapter to the MacBook Pro, the Mac shuts down abruptly. I still don’t know the reason after all these years, and it’s not a faulty adapter because I already changed it (unless I was so unlucky as to get a second faulty adapter). And it’s not just that: every now and then, for no reason, when I wake my MacBook Pro with the external display attached, Display preferences get messed up, the display wakes in a different, lower resolution, with a different refresh rate; its colour profile isn’t loaded, and I have to repeatedly disconnect/reconnect the cable until everything’s back to normal. (Oh, of course I also need to reposition and resize several Finder and application windows when this happens.)

I still stand by what I wrote in The perceived decline in Apple’s software quality, published in early 2015, but there’s something I want to add to this paragraph:

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.

As time passes, I wouldn’t call it ‘decline’, but a progress characterised by an increased rocking movement, a sort of to and fro between progression and regression, with an environment where the addition of a couple of new features makes something else break or behave in unexpected ways. This is nothing new in software development, from what I hear (I’m not a developer myself), but Mac OS X, in general, felt less volatile in the Tiger-Leopard-Snow Leopard years. Yosemite felt like a regression after Mavericks’ improvement over Mountain Lion, and having a user interface with a new coat of paint felt like a pretty much insignificant gain when you consider major underlying issues including (but not limited to) network connectivity. El Capitan is definitely better and more stable, but still with issues popping up every now and then for no apparent reason (visual glitches in the Dock, the Finder that sometimes doesn’t update the amount of disk free space for hours, menubar icons disappearing then reappearing after a logout/login, intermittent Wi-Fi connectivity, the Preview issues mentioned by Tsai, the increased unpredictability of Disk Utility, etc.)

Regarding Apple’s innovation, I’m not a naysayer. I’m not saying that Apple, post-Jobs, has ceased to innovate. What I’ll say, from my humble point of view, is that Apple’s innovation, too, feels different, more fragmented and ‘schizophrenic’. There are areas of brilliance, there are unquestionable feats of engineering and manufacturing (I find the Taptic engine particularly ingenious, not to mention all the technology in current and upcoming iPhone cameras and retina displays), but certain design decisions seem to reflect a lack of a plan, and seem motivated more by a sort of Let’s try this thing approach. Other ideas seem to work very well, like 3D Touch, until you realise that only a limited subset of devices can take advantage of it, and this creates a different usability and UI experience on iOS depending on whether your device supports 3D Touch or not.

Certain iterations are starting to feel a bit too exhausting, like — and this is one of my strongest pet peeves, I know — the insistence on thinness when it comes to laptops. I understand, to a point, the compromises Apple chose when creating the 12-inch MacBook. You wanted to produce the ultimate portable machine, sacrificing (in part) CPU performance and, more importantly, ports. But what’s the reasoning behind making the next MacBook Pros thinner than the current ones? Lightness and portability are important, but maybe they are not the most important features pro users look for in a work machine. Like Tsai, as another prospective MacBook Pro buyer, I too am afraid of possible surprises (and compromises) in the upcoming MacBook Pro line, like the disappearance of ports and the adoption of that same awful keyboard the retina MacBook features. Will the rumoured new OLED mini-display that replaces the function key row on the keyboard be the foundation of an innovative, I-can’t-believe-how-I-managed-without-it-so-far functionality, or a gimmick that’ll be cause for new software and UI headaches down the road?

Tsai mentions Schiller’s famous “Can’t innovate anymore, my ass!” quip. Putting it in context, it was delivered during the presentation of the redesigned Mac Pro at WWDC 2013. A Mac Pro that has not received any kind of update since then. A machine packed with interesting solutions and engineering and manufacturing feats, yet, three years after, I have to ask “What’s the plan, here?” — because every Mac Pro user I’ve talked with has told me they find the previous Mac Pro design more practical and thought-out than the 2013 miniaturisation. (Yes, one could say the same for the Power Mac G4 Cube, but at least the Cube was not the only Power Mac G4 available at the time.)

The progression of Apple’s innovation, during the second Steve Jobs era, felt like the product of a plan with the occasional stumbling blocks along the way. Currently, such progression feels more like the product of an aggregation of mostly interesting ideas getting to a plan through a trial-and-error process.

Back to Tsai, he then quotes Nick Heer:

It doesn’t really matter whether there’s a real decline in Apple’s software quality, or if it’s mostly an exaggeration bolstered by a larger user base and increased media coverage. What is concerning is the sentiment I perceive in Cue’s explanation — that a bug affecting 1% of users is comparable in 2016 to one affecting 1% of users in, say, 2006 or 1996. But, as he says, there’s an enormous chasm in the actual number of users affected, and that’s what’s particularly concerning. If Apple is pushing out, to be generous, one-quarter of the number of these bugs as they were ten years ago, that means that they’re still affecting orders of magnitude more users.

and concludes:

My perception is that it’s not just the larger user base. I personally encounter a lot more Apple bugs than I used to.

I do too. And I also agree that it’s not just the larger user base. If you look back at the past decade, 2000–2010, if you search Mac forums’ archives, you’ll find plenty of complaints from regular users. You’ll always find regular Mac users complaining of what they call ‘bugs’ but which are often problems they stumbled on while configuring (or mis-configuring) something in their setup; or issues caused by third party software acting up but Apple takes the blame anyway; or simply mistakes made by the users themselves due to their inexperience; and so on and so forth. What I think is a more reliable indicator, instead, are the complaints from power users and software developers, because theirs is a subset of users that hasn’t grown at the same order of magnitude as regular users. And what I’ve noticed is more complaints from these people in recent years, with consistent issues that truly are first-party bugs, not temporary setbacks caused by specific hardware/software setups or one-time anomalies that are triggered by particularly esoteric circumstances.

During the years 1999 to 2005, I used to do a lot of technical assistance on the Mac platform. 95% of the time I was called to troubleshoot a ‘Mac problem’ or a ‘bug’, it turned out to be something caused by bad practices. Typically, the person had installed some dubious or poorly-written free software or hack that wreaked havoc on their Mac, triggering freezes or system conflicts. Or the user had ignored a warning and irretrievably deleted essential files. Or the user had followed the advice of some ‘tech-savvy friend’ to optimise their Mac, mistook the instructions, and ended up trashing documents required by the operating system. The examples are many. But I and other experienced Mac users I knew, with our pristine, finely-tuned systems, rarely encountered problems or bugs so egregious as to make us question what Apple was doing with regard to quality assurance. Today, I find this situation quite changed, and a lot of expert, long-time Mac users complaining about bugs and misbehaviours that can’t be attributed to user error or inexperience. That’s what I perceive to be more alarming.


Coda — Since there’s a lot of talking about Apple Maps in the interview with Cue and Federighi by Rick Tetzeli, let me give you a personal update on the matter. I still can’t rely on Apple Maps where I live. There are a lot of businesses that aren’t listed; a fair number of businesses that are listed closed down 2–3 years ago; and the app still can’t find my home address here in Valencia unless I write it down in its most complete form without omissions, otherwise it always suggests similar addresses from towns nearby. Google Maps is infinitely better, more accurate, with more pertinent suggestions and ‘educated guesses’ — and I use it without ever being logged into my Google account.

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