Apple software quality: is the sky really falling?

There’s been a lot of hand-wringing for the past few months about the perceived quality of Apple’s software, and it seems to have reached fever pitch with yesterday’s post by Marco Arment (http://www.marco.org/2015/01/04/apple-lost-functional-high-ground).

Rather than whine about any perceived “losing” on Apple’s part, let me describe what I think is happening, what’s driving those changes, and how long those drivers might compel change into the future.

What’s happening?

The claim is that Apple’s <insert software name here> is buggy and/or getting buggier. <Insert software here> can refer to any or all of iOS 7, iOS 8, OS X 10.9, OS X 10.10, Xcode, Swift, iPhoto, etc.

I agree with most of the Apple-software-quality-is-declining blog posts in terms of individual problems they’ve pointed out. Yes, the iOS 8.0.1 bug fix went terribly wrong. Yes, there are problems with rotation handling in iOS 8. Yes, Xcode’s code formatter crashes constantly when writing Swift code (although this seems to have been mostly fixed recently). Yes, OS X 10.10 had wifi problems.

In Apple’s defense, consider the fact that the iOS 8.0.1 problem was detected within hours, and fixed in a day or two. It was also due to a configuration issue that wasn’t tested on live phone networks. Also in Apple’s defense, consider that none of these software quality problems resulted in lost data. Anyone around for OS X’s early days remembers the 10.3 Oxford chip set problem with Firewire 800 devices, and how that *did* result in lost data. http://www.cnet.com/news/firewire-800-drives-with-oxford-922-apple-statement-lacie-wiebetech-owc-updates-oxford-statement-taking-precautions/

Now this doesn’t mean I think Apple deserves a Get Out of Jail Free card. I mean, when you ship a laptop with no physical network jack and then you ship an OS update that messes up wifi, well, your customers deserve to be angry at their loss of productivity.

So, sure, Apple has botched a few things, but I think it’s pretty obvious that they’ve botched things at least as bad in the past. So let’s not bring up the “this wouldn’t happen if Steve Jobs were around” mantra, OK? Great.

What’s driving these quality problems?

Are there more problems than in the past? Yes, but that’s because of the enormous amount of change lately.

  • iOS and OS X are much more complicated than they used to be, and there are a lot more users worldwide.
  • Apple is trying to make iOS and OS X more alike than they already are (for users and developers), as ARM-based, touch-driven devices catch up to the speed and screen size of Intel-based, keyboard-driven devices.
  • Apple is innovating on the developer front (Xcode 6, Swift, Adaptive UI, Apple Pay, Health Kit, Home Kit, Extensions, Metal, iCloud, etc.).
  • Apple is innovating on the device front (Apple TV, CarPlay, Apple Watch, iPhone 6/6 Plus, A8 and A8X chips, etc.)

Despite the fact that Apple is famous for having a limited number of hardware devices for sale, this is an enormous amount of change. I can’t emphasize this enough. For the past two years, Wall Street has been saying Apple wasn’t innovating—yet this year Apple revealed enormous changes in APIs and devices that it has been working on in secret for 2 or more years.

So what’s driving these software quality problems? In a word, change. Enormous change, at a rapid pace.

Why is there this enormous ecosystem change?

OK, so enormous, rapid change means that software is harder to get right, out the door. But why? Why is Apple creating enormous change so rapidly?

The answer to that is complicated. It’s a lot of things: competition for users, competition for developers, and changes within Apple.

It’s not just Apple vs. Microsoft anymore. Apple is competing for users with Microsoft, Google, Amazon, and Facebook. The biggest challenges are Google—with Android, Chrome, search, and services—and Facebook, with the largest social network in the world. Court rulings have demonstrated that it’s hard for Apple to protect the difficult, multi-year work involved in device and UX design with intellectual property rights (patents). Apple has to compete a different way, so it’s going to be constant innovation.

Apple’s also competing for developers. Google has lots of developer APIs for its services, Facebook has Parse, and of course Microsoft has myriad popular developer tools both for Windows and the cloud.

The third area that has driven so much change is the shuffling of Apple’s management. Not only has Steve Jobs passed away, but also Tim Cook fired Scott Forstall. While neither of these events is cause for alarm, both Jobs and Forstall had strong opinions about user experience that conflicted with Jony Ives and possibly others at Apple. That resulted in the quick jettisoning of the ostensibly dated look of iOS 6 and OS X 10.9—and its skeuomorphic baggage—and the new streamlined look, motion effects, and transparency effects of iOS 7 and OS X 10.10. That executive shuffling may also have resulted in the new larger iPhones, requiring lots of rethinking of developer tools for layout out apps.

So what does the future hold?

OK, we have enormous change, driven by internal and external forces (management changes and competition). Can we expect this to continue? Are Apple users doomed to eternal software glitches?

Well, I think it’ll continue for the next 6 months at a minimum. We still have the iPad 6 Pro/Plus coming, which may require more UX and API changes. We have the Apple Watch, for which Apple has released a preliminary SDK, but promises even more changes in a year or so. Apple TV is set for a refresh. CarPlay is in its infancy. And now Mattt Thompson is thinking Swift may be only the beginning of a much bigger change for developer tools and APIs (The Death of Cocoa: http://nshipster.com/the-death-of-cocoa/).

So hold on tight, folks. The next year may involve almost as many changes as the past year. And there may be more glitches along the way.

My feeling is that this is unavoidable, with the enormous change that is happening at Apple.

The good news, though, is that I don’t think this rapid rate of change is sustainable. And I don’t mean just users and developers. I think Apple has some very sharp people, but even they cannot sustain this rapid change of pace forever.

The rapid pace of change will ebb and flow. Remember, Apple doesn’t come out with amazing new category-killer devices every year. There are 5-10 years between new categories: Mac, iPod, iPhone, iPad, and now Apple Watch.

So this torrid pace will continue for a year, and then I think it will calm down. And then Apple’s software developers can catch up. And 3rd party developers can catch up. And users will be able to breath a sigh a relief. But not before this tumultuous 2-year period (we’re half way through it now) is over.

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iOS 6 vs iOS 7

2 Reasons Why the iPhone 6 Won’t Need to be 1.5x Retina Resolution

When Apple moved to iPhone 4 and iPhone 5, there were tremendous constraints that Apple wisely overcame to determine exactly how it made its phones with higher resolution and then larger (taller). How?

With the iPhone 4, Apple exactly doubled the resolution, leading to a 2x “Retina” resolution. And with the iPhone 5, Apple kept the pixel density (pixels per inch) the same, but just extended the screen size vertically, to create a 16:9 screen ratio.

This resulted in a great user experience, as well as minimizing the efforts for developers and UI designers.

Now Apple is coming out with two much larger iPhone 6 models, reportedly 4.7” and 5.5”. Many pundits are saying these phones will need to be 1.x Retina resolution or the phones need to have the same pixels-per-inch as the iPhone 5S. But Apple isn’t constrained by the same circumstances as before. There are two things that have changed in the past 5 years that mean that Apple can make these new iPhone 6’s any resolution they want: Continue reading

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One year ago, Apple introduced the most significant visual upgrade in iOS’s short but significant history: iOS 7 had a completely new look. Along with that look came subtle but significant changes in how to design and implement iOS apps.

Those subtle changes by themselves weren’t so hard to implement, but there was one albatross that hung over developers’ and designers’ heads: Continue reading

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If iOS 8 gets split-screen apps, the status bar is probably going away

Daring Fireball discusses an article imagining how complicated iOS will get if it gets the split-screen, multi-app view that Windows 8 has.

But I think they’re completely missing the point of iOS 7’s apps owning the whole screen and living “behind” the status bar.

Apple is very slow and methodical. What I think this means is that

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Apple already has “universal apps” that run on both iPhones and iPads, from a single binary. The user only has to buy an app once, and it will run on any iOS device they have. (Note that not all companies provide their apps this way, and I believe companies like Omni Group and others that sell their apps separately for the iPhone and iPad are desperately clinging to the past, but that’s the subject of another post.)

But why not take this a step further? Why not have apps that run on iPhones and iPads also run on Macs? Why bother having 2 App Stores, one for iOS and one for OS X? Microsoft is going down this route with their (future) plans to merge their Windows and Windows Phone stores. But how can Apple do something similar without running into the same problem Windows 8 has, which is making the desktop experience catered too much to a touch interface? How can Apple leverage their thousands of iOS developers and get them to be OS X developers?

There are several ways that  Continue reading

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Calendar preferences on OS X 10.9, left, and on iCloud Calendar, right.

Calendar preferences on OS X 10.9, left, and on iCloud Calendar, right.

The photo above shows  Continue reading

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