Apple’s Software Quality

Walt Mossberg got the ball rolling with this piece on The Verge; soon Jim Dalrymple and John Gruber got on the bandwagon. John Siracusa, Marco Arment and Casey Liss too chimed in on the latest episode of their podcast, ATP. Here are my two cents.

While Mossberg, Dalrymple and Gruber write short articles citing specific instances of where Apple’s software fails them, the trio over at ATP talk about this with a broader scope. Software quality has different aspects to it:

  1. Crashes – Is the software stable?
  2. Bugs – Does the software do what I want reliably, quickly without adversely affecting my data?
  3. Functionality – Does the software do what I want it to do?
  4. UI – Does the UI invite a layperson while at the same time not appear too simple for a power user?

While Apple has gotten better at the former two (less crashes, bugs), the latter two aspects are where Apple has dropped the ball.

I agree overall with Siracusa and Marco, that it is seemingly Apple’s focus on oversimplification (hence less bugs, crashes) that caused this. Starting with Mac OS X Lion (10.7), Apple went on an oversimplification drive. Also the fact that Apple has generally struggled with cloud software has, in an increasingly cloud dependent world, made the software problem more glaring.

To me, Apple’s ecosystem during Snow Leopard was at its zenith. Especially around 10.6.4 (or maybe a couple of point updates later but before the release of the Mac App Store), it was a happy place. For most of my basic computing needs, Apple’s software worked great. Snow Leopard was stable, reliable, snappy, functional. The built in Mail app worked just fine (I synced 3 Gmail accounts with it and everything just worked). iPhoto (I forget the version) was truly useful – I loved its Places feature – as a catalog of photos and for basic edits. For casual writing Pages was great and Keynote was slick. iTunes was my go-to media player and music catalog.

Mac OS X took a bit of a back seat after Snow Leopard. This was around 2010, when the iPhone was the rising star and understandably Apple’s focus was on iOS. After a great iOS 4 (and iPhone 4) launch, followed quickly by iOS 4.3 (and the iPad) launch Apple teased us with the ‘Back to the Mac’. Seemingly, Apple would focus on the Mac now. The next OS X release will be another tour de force we thought. But that was not to be. By ‘Back to the Mac’ Apple meant bringing back iPhone OS’s philosophy to Mac OS X. More skeuomorphism, full screen apps, simplification, Launchpad and a huge push towards the app model.

Now, El Capitan is a pretty OS littered with bugs, functional deficiencies and sometimes is slow-as-molasses. Trash doesn’t ever show me the correct size, it always shows the size it previously was; Mission Control doesn’t hold a candle to the combination that Expose + Spaces once was; Mac App Store is a pain to navigate (it has its own set of challenges). Finder is just bad, I only wish now that Apple would somehow let me open each folder in its own window. Never mind that whole discoveryd fiasco in Yosemite.

Photos replaced iPhoto sometime last year. It threw away most of iPhotos’ features in the name of simplicity. Every photo that an iPhone takes has forever been geo-tagged. Photos has this information, yet there isn’t any location-based search or a photos-on-a-map feature. There isn’t any batch editing – if you want to edit a bunch of pics, be prepared to mechanically click the same set of buttons and controls for each one. Photos seemingly forsake all of iPhotos functionality for iCloud integration which, to be fair, works well. But when things go awry, there isn’t a way to figure things out and fix them. I’ve now switched exclusively to Lightroom for all of my photo cataloging and editing needs.

In mid 2013, Apple set out with a goal to achieve feature parity in iWork applications across Mac OS X and iOS. They did this, surprisingly, by stripping down features from the Mac OS X versions. That meant a few .doc/.docx and .ppt/.pptx documents I had didn’t open faithfully anymore. I’ve long since avoided Pages and Keynote, sticking to the web versions of Microsoft Office.

I still use iTunes as my music catalog, but thats only because of my dependence on the iTunes Store, Apple Music. iTunes is a dinosaur – the store UI is terrible, scrolling brings the UI to a stutter, navigating through your music library isn’t great…the list is endless. An iTunes rework(not by cutting features!) is long overdue.

While most of the software quality talk is on the Mac side of things, it is by no means restricted to it. Apple has problems on iOS too. The iPad Pro, a tablet designed with productivity in mind, makes apparent iOS’s deficiencies – iOS is a great phone OS, a great OS for consuming content on tablets but a very mediocre OS for productivity on tablets.

It took 5 versions since Lion before we have a general perception that Apple’s software quality is on the wane. I suspect it will take a similar length of time before any steps they take will show effect on their software. I hope they start sooner than later.

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