Friday, October 28, 2016

Viewpoint: Apple’s software insects might be overplayed, however quicker repairs are still needed by them

No one will be surprised to hear that I greatly prefer Apple’s platform to those of competitors. I’ve often argued that if you want a single ecosystem where everything Just Works across devices, Apple still has a significant lead, even if other platforms are gaining ground.

But that doesn’t mean I think Apple’s own platform is perfect. There are reliability issues that mean that platform doesn’t always live up to that Just Works ideal, and there are annoyingly persistent bugs that the company doesn’t seem in any hurry to fix.

In a podcast interview on Friday, Eddy Cue and Craig Federighi argued that while all software has bugs, the sheer number of users means that complaints are “amplified,” making them appear more prevalent than they are in reality. There may be some truth in this – at least on the iOS side – but I’d argue that Apple allows known bugs to persist through too many platform and app releases …

I’m of course not the first person to suggest this. Walt Mossberg was one of the most high-profile examples, in a recent piece simply entitled Apple’s apps need work.

In the last couple of years […] 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.

With a billion iOS devices now in use, Apple’s SVP of software engineering Craig Federighi has a reasonable case when he argues that the sheer number of users give an exaggerated impression of the problem (hat-tip to Business Insider for highlighting the quote).

Think how integral your iPhone, your iPad, and still, your Mac are to your life. How many hours a day. We see the usage metrics. What this means is, when you have a billion people running phones in every corner of their lives with all these third party apps, with all these countries and all these languages, there are going to be issues, there are always going to be issues, but there are plenty of people who could encounter one, and now it’s amplified.

A subsequent blog post by Alexandra Mintsopoulos made a similar argument, that there’s a kind of echo-chamber effect when tech bloggers all write about similar issues.

If you follow enough people on Tech Twitter and listen to enough podcasts, you will begin to see this small and insular group start to say and believe the same things, which eventually leads to their audience coming to believe it as well.

Mintsopoulos argues that the real metrics are that Apple’s customer satisfaction is at an all-time high, and that the company’s continued commercial success means there can’t be a major issue, else people would be abandoning the platform.

I’m somewhat in agreement with that viewpoint. iTunes aside, I don’t think there’s a major issue with the quality of Apple’s software and systems. I also think that the vast majority of non-tech customers either don’t experience issues or, if they do, think they made a mistake or simply don’t care enough about it to complain. The majority issues probably have the greatest impact on techier users, who are more demanding and use more features.

But, as Mossberg puts it:

I hold Apple to its own, higher, often-proclaimed standard, based on all those “It just works” claims and the oft-repeated contention by Mr. Jobs and his successor, Tim Cook, that Apple is in business to make “great products.”

And “minor” bugs can become extremely irritating if they are persistent, and if Apple repeatedly fails to fix them. Let me give an example.


With multi-monitor setups, the OS X dock randomly moves between them. This appears to have been a feature gone awry: if you move the pointer to the center-bottom of any monitor and hold it there for a second or two, the dock is supposed to switch to that monitor. If this worked reliably, and it didn’t happen randomly, it would be a useful feature – but it doesn’t and it does.

Try to use it as designed, and sometimes it will work, sometimes it won’t. Sometimes it will work one minute and not the next, other times it will work perfectly all day then not the following day. For some people, unchecking Displays have separate spaces in System Preferences > Mission Control will fix it, for others not.

Failure of a design feature to work as advertised is one thing, but unprovoked random jumping is another. At least once a day, the dock will just randomly jump to a different monitor when the pointer is nowhere near the bottom of the screen. That’s irritating.

It does this even when using only a single external monitor plus the built-in one on a MacBook Pro, and it does it even when that external monitor is an Apple Thunderbolt Display. I emphasize that not because I think it could be a hardware issue, but simply to underline that this is a setup where Apple has complete control of both hardware and software – so there is no possibility of a third-party being at fault for faulty drivers or similar.

This is a bug that was introduced with Mavericks and has persisted not just through minor dot releases, but through Yosemite and into El Capitan. More than two-and-a-half years later, it’s still annoying me on a daily basis.

I can understand that fixing it wouldn’t be right at the top of Apple’s to-do list. Macs are a smaller platform than iOS, and among Mac users only a small minority use a second monitor. But it should surely be positioned somewhere on a to-do list such that it isn’t allowed to persist for years on end?


Now, I get Federighi’s second point: that once you take all the third-party apps into consideration, there’s almost an infinite number of variables involved, so tracking down bugs can sometimes be extremely tricky. But my counter-argument to this would be: Apple Mail.

This is a piece of Apple software sitting on an Apple platform that has problems even on fresh OS X installs. Not problems affecting just a handful of users, but extremely widespread ones. A quick Google for ‘Apple Mail problems’ generates, at the time of writing, 67,200,000 results. (To be fair, a search for ‘Outlook mail problems’ generates slightly more hits, but that’s not really company in which Apple wants to be seen.)

And the problems have been myriad. New mail that doesn’t get flagged as such. Repeated requests to re-enter passwords. Account information that randomly disappears. Mail delivery that stalls until you take the app offline and online again. The app getting stuck on ‘optimizing your mail database.’ Searches that don’t work. Mail that can’t be deleted. The entire app operating painfully slowly, or freezing altogether.

Now, I fully accept that I’m listing here problems that have occurred in different generations of the app, but – again – if problems are allowed to persist for too long, or an OS X update resolves one issue while introducing another, than eventually a series of individually smaller issues add up a collectively bigger problem. I’m not alone in abandoning Apple Mail altogether, despite my general preference for using Apple software precisely because I want the most stable experience possible.


And then there’s iCloud. Again, it’s absolutely reasonable for Apple to talk about the sheer scale of the service, and how occasional downtime is to be expected for at least some of those users. Apple says that 782 million people use iCloud, and – to illustrate the workload involved – tells us that the servers process a mind-boggling 200,000 iMessages per second.

That’s an almost unimaginable amount of data, and to expect all iCloud services to work perfectly all of the time over every connection type is clearly unrealistic. All the same, I don’t think it’s unreasonable to complain when sometimes a Note that has existed for years is suddenly and persistently unavailable on one of my devices, and that on numerous occasions, editing a note that is available will duplicate, rather than edit, the note on another device.

So sure, problems will occur from time to time, but Apple needs to do more to address the persistent and long-standing ones.

And here’s one small thing Apple could do to alleviate the frustration when things do go wrong: tell us about it! Almost every single time I’ve experienced an issue with an iCloud service and visited Apple’s system status page, it’s been full of green lights. Everything fine here, move along, nothing to see, the computer is your friend. That is often the case even hours after Twitter is full of people reporting the same problem.

If Apple were to promptly and reliably update its status page, that would achieve two things. First, it would mean customers could avoid wasting time trying to diagnose a problem locally when the fault is with Apple’s servers. Second, it reduces frustration levels simply to see that Apple is aware of a problem, and is working on a fix.

Screen Shot 2016-02-15 at 14.44.11

So yes, I accept the various points that have been made by Apple and others. The scale of the problem has been exaggerated. Apple’s software development is not in crisis.

But the company is allowing bugs that affect sizeable numbers of people to go unfixed for too long, and even issues which affect only relatively small numbers of customers should not be allowed to persist for years. It is too often failing to deliver on its number one selling point: integrated hardware, software and services that Just Work. And that’s a problem the company needs to fix.

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