Apple's declining software quality

Software quality is a nebulous and divisive topic. There are many parameters to software quality – reliability, speed, user experience, design, discoverability, and more – and a move towards any of these virtues leads to sacrifices in others, especially on a limited time schedule. Additionally, a number of forces influence software quality over time, like accommodating for different use cases, changes in platform, changes in hardware, changes in design preferences, changes in market, changes in expectations, and more. Finally, software is not like digging a hole, say, where more people really can dig a hole faster than fewer people: in fact, more people can often slow down a software project.

Nobody knows this better than the technology titans of today: Apple, Google, Facebook, Amazon, Microsoft, IBM, Oracle have all experience unanticipated software problems and regressions and high profile bugs. These are organizations with thousands of programmers writing and maintaining millions of lines of code for billions of devices. And these devices are machines which require perfection: one slight ambiguity of intent, any minor breach of contract, any single unexpected 0 where there should be 1 or vice versa … has the capability the bring down the whole system. In fact, it often does. Countless kernel panics, stack overflow errors, null pointer exceptions, and memory leaks are plaguing poor users and tired system administrators and overworked programmers right now. Machines are fast, but they can be awfully dumb.

And no company is feeling the pain of software’s nebulous nature and hardware’s mindless computing more than Apple right now. The underdog that many loyal fans rooted for is now the world’s (perhaps previous) most valuable company. With that, comes insanely high expectations: they need to grow the world’s biggest company every quarter to keep Wall Street happy, and even harder, they have to keep those nerds that kept them alive through the hard times happy too. And with release after release of the most revolutionary operating system ever, it’s tempting to picture Apple like an actual Titan, in particular Atlas, holding the world upon his shoulders. But it seems more and more every day that another Greek tale is more fitting: it’s time to admit that Apple have flown too close to the sun.

Walt Mossberg, technology journalism’s elder statesman, has this to say about Apple’s software quality:

In the last couple of years, however, I’ve noticed a gradual degradation in the quality and reliability of Apple’s core apps, on both the mobile iOS operating system and its Mac OS X platform. It’s almost as if the tech giant has taken its eye off the ball when it comes to these core software products, while it pursues big new dreams, like smartwatches and cars.

On OS X this is especially true: OpenGL implementation has fallen behind the competition, the filesystem desperately needs updating, the SDK has needed modernizing for years, networking and cryptography have seen major gaffes. And that’s with regards to the under-the-hood details, the applications are easier targets: it’s tragic that Aperture and iPhoto were axed in favor of the horrifically bad Photos app (that looks like some Frankenstein “iOS X” app), the entire industry have left Final Cut Pro X, I dare not plug my iPhone in to my laptop for fear of what it might do, the Mac App Store is the antitheses of native application development (again being some Frankenstein of a web/native app), and iCloud nee MobileMe nee iTools has been an unreliable and slow mess since day one.

This isn’t the first time that a prominent member of the Apple community has criticized Apple’s software quality. Here’s Marco Arment from January of 2015:

Apple’s hardware today is amazing — it has never been better. But the software quality has fallen so much in the last few years that I’m deeply concerned for its future. I’m typing this on a computer whose existence I didn’t even think would be possible yet, but it runs an OS with embarrassing bugs and fundamental regressions. Just a few years ago, we would have relentlessly made fun of Windows users for these same bugs on their inferior OS, but we can’t talk anymore.

This is still as true today as it was last year. Macs and iPhones have gotten thinner, more beautiful, and more powerful; the Apple Watch and the new Apple TV are magnificent additions to the product line up. But I’d speculate that part of the problem Apple is having is that if it took 1,000 engineers to write software for Mac when that was the only product, it doesn’t necessarily take 4,000 people to write software for four product lines. In fact, 10,000 of the same grade of engineers might not even do it, especially without proper management and unified goals. Apple may not have listened to rockstar developer Marco Arment, but Walt Mossberg will definitely get their attention. Here’s an anecdote about Steve Jobs from the last time that Mossberg complained about Apple’s software quality:

In Fortune’s story, Lashinsky says Steve Jobs summoned the entire MobileMe team for a meeting at the company’s on-campus Town Hall, accusing everyone of “tarnishing Apple’s reputation.” He told the members of the team they “should hate each other for having let each other down”, and went on to name new executives on the spot to run the MobileMe team. A few excerpts from the article.

“Can anyone tell me what MobileMe is supposed to do?” Having received a satisfactory answer, he continues, “So why the fuck doesn’t it do that?”

Jobs was also particularly angry about the Wall Street Journal’s Walt Mossberg not liking MobileMe:

“Mossberg, our friend, is no longer writing good things about us.”

It really is time for Tim Cook to take action as drastic as this regarding software quality on Apple’s existing platforms. What worries me is that AAPL the stock ticker and Apple the company are in a (self-driving) crash course with one another: AAPL needs to launch new products to drive growth and Apple needs to improve the products that have already shipped. The most valuable asset that Apple own is their brand, and that’s the brand that’ll drive sales of any car that may or may not be in development. If that brand name is tarnished by regressions and performance problems, what consumer would buy a car from the brand? In fact, anecdotally, talking to my friends, the Apple Car already has an uphill battle with the kerfuffle surrounding the Maps launch.

Jim Dalrymple, in response to Mossberg, writes:

I understand that Apple has a lot of balls in the air, but they have clearly taken their eye off some of them. There is absolutely no doubt that Apple Music is getting better with each update to the app, but what we have now is more of a 1.0 version than what we received last year.

John Gruber, in response to Dalrymple:

Maybe we expect too much from Apple’s software. But Apple’s hardware doesn’t have little problems like this.

The best thing for Apple to do is to re-take their position as a leader of software quality before it’s too late: consumers know that Apple’s hardware is the very best, but more and more they’re using apps made by Google and Microsoft and Facebook. If this trend doesn’t turn around, Apple will find their breakout product and all of its growth will be owned by competitors. And when the time comes to launch their car, they’ll find that loyal fans and everyday consumers have lost trust in the brand. Having said that, I’m still a Mac user at home and at work, my iPhone is a wonderful device that I enriches my life, and I’m still finding new ways to make use of Apple Watch. And to give credit where credit is due: Logic Pro X has improved a lot recently, and Music Memos is a welcome addition to Apple’s music line up. I even use Apple Maps. Apple can do this. It’s not too late. But for sake of all us poor users, and Apple’s tired system administrators and overworked programmers, I hope they started 6 months ago.