iOS

Has Apple’s software quality declined?

Today marks the start of CES, the yearly consumer electronics show that features most every prominent electronics, computer and phone manufacturer. I say most, because Apple doesn’t attend this show. In years past, despite not being in attendance, they’ve managed to disrupt the steady of stream of CES headlines, with news often breaking regarding real or rumored products. With CES 2014 kicking off today, Apple is once again grabbing headlines, but not for the reasons one would expect. Marco Arment, the accomplished developer behind Instapaper and now Overcast, published an article outlining his discontent with Apple’s software quality, suggesting that marketing has become a higher priority. This has set into motion a media frenzy that has extended well beyond the technology blog circuit to mainstream television. Has Apple’s software quality taken a nosedive as Arment suggests? More importantly, where do they go from here?

The complaints are not entirely new. Apple’s software releases have sacrificed quality in order to meet yearly release dates. Despite the scale of a company like Apple, this puts an impossible burden on engineers. Arment basically nails it when he says, “they’re doing too much, with unrealistic deadlines.” With each successive iPhone release, there is a new release of iOS. The software releases play a key role in the overall product release, with the marketing focused on linch pin features like Siri or Touch ID. But these releases have become so much more than a few tent-pole features and perhaps that’s part of the problem. The releases are big, often showcasing hundreds of new features. And for those responsible for developing the software, they have a mere few months from the beta release until they have to be declared GM (golden master, the term for used for software that is ready for manufacturing). The wheels need to turn fast in order these iOS releases to find their ways onto new iPhones. Too fast, I say.

The trouble with this argument is that it is often based on non-scientific theory, but that’s not to say it isn’t valid. Only Apple knows for certain just how buggy or stable their software has been. Crash reports, radar submissions are all valid methods. Everything else is conjecture based upon personal experience. Clearly, there are quality control issues and we can base that off the botched release iOS 8.0.1 that killed cell service on countless iPhones. These sorts of releases impact the Apple brand, the brand that symbolizes a computing experience where everything just works. But just how much of this trickles down to the average user?

Developers like Arment offer a unique perspective. These are the guys who are constantly kicking the tires. They are granted early access to new beta releases, where bugs are a common and accepted commodity. Most are wired differently than the average iOS or Mac user. For one, they have extensive experience in software testing. A minor bug or oddity is something that would be overlooked by most users, yet would resonate with a developer. Their expectations of bug-free and stable software is no different than regular users, but they have an affinity for finding such kinks in the armor.

Historically, Apple’s software has probably never been as stable as it was perceived. But herein lies the problem. For years, they have benefited from a positive perception. Just how much of Arment’s frustrations are shared by the every day consumer? And with these sorts of stories going mainstream, how will this help inform and shape perception going forward.

This lack of faith in Apple software quality is not something which happened overnight. The iOS 6 Maps fiasco was a major misstep that even had CEO Tim Cook suggesting alternatives. Customers lost trust in Maps and rightfully so. The following year saw the transition to iOS 7, which was visually jarring. Customers would have been more accepting if Apple hadn’t removed important features from core apps, like list view in Calendar.

So where does Apple go in 2015? Do they heed the warning signs and pump the brakes? Will iOS 9 see modest changes, with a renewed focus on stability? I doubt it. For one, you can bet they are pushing to get the Apple Watch and its software ready for primetime. Both iPhone and iPad hardware have reached an exceedingly high point of refinement. That leaves software as a key differentiator between them and the other guys. I’ve seen first-hand some of the problematic issues introduced with new iOS releases, some of which percolate up to the average consumer. Apple faces a difficult position of software innovation, while avoiding unnecessary bloat. That might be an even bigger concern than delivering buggy software. Does Apple place a higher value on being able to market new features each year? Maybe, but that’s been a winning formula and I’ve yet to see any sales data that proves otherwise. People aren’t leaving iOS or the Mac in droves. The story of today may be declining software quality, which to some extent is true, but that’s not going to quell enthusiasm for the hundred or so features that will be introduced with iOS 9. Apple’s betting that customers value innovation over stability and are willing to make that trade-off, at least for a few months while maintenance releases fix various bugs.

What’s been your Mac and iOS software experience over the past few years? Has the quality of Apple’s software taken a nosedive as Arment suggests?

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