The Case Against Declining Software Quality at Apple

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One of the most interesting articles I’ve read in a while, written by Alexandra Mintsopoulos on Medium regarding the perception that Apple’s software quality is declining. It is mostly referential to The Accidental Tech Podcast, episode 155, in which hosts Marco Arment, John Siracusa, and Casey Liss divulge their gripes with Apple’s software decisions.

She quotes a Redditor, but I think what they say’s worth quoting here, too, as they identify a large factor that could be behind all these complaints:

 

"There’s a reason why Marco’s “Functional high ground” post took off, it’s because it was vague enough that everyone could project whatever current bug they’re facing on to it."

 

Towards the end she addresses the credible examples - covering all of Apple’s platforms - of Apple’s software truly falling short of standards:

 

"If the biggest example that can be pointed to is iTunes or its back-end (which seem to generate the most criticism) then there isn’t any validity to the idea that Apple’s software quality is declining. iTunes has been the target of complaints for as long as anyone can remember and it seems clear that it will be reworked much like Photos, iWork, or Final Cut have been (and likely receive the same backlash for missing functionality)."

 

It’s especially interesting that these examples pertain solely to the Mac, far from Apple’s most important and most popular product (believe it or not), selling 5.3M units the same quarter the iPhone sold 74.8 million units.

It points towards the main thing worth noting. While the ATP crew cite examples of software being more stable in major past iterations, it’s simply a matter of fact that Apple is a much larger (in fact, the largest) company and caters to an order of magnitude more people than they had to before.

A key thing I took away from Craig Federighi and Eddy Cue’s recent appearance on John Gruber’s The Talk Show was that while Apple’s software teams have improved, they simply couldn’t keep up with the rate of growth of the rest of the company. It’s a case where the Law of Large Numbers just can’t be surpassed even by one of its greatest challengers, but it still seems an inevitability that this is the case. It so happens to be another good problem to have, if only from Apple’s perspective.

This leaves me being in a vicious cycle of two minds here. On one hand, I sympathise with the annoyances that the ATP crew have with the Photos app (particularly with the lack of buttons), and on the other hand, I realise I’m in a potentially microscopic subset of Apple’s users that even seek functionality, such as editing capabilities, out of the default Photos app on the Mac. Then I think back to other complaints I’ve heard from elsewhere, like the five-star system in iPhoto being replaced by favourites, which I have no problems with at all.

On one hand, my iPhone 5c that consists of almost four-year-old internals and my lowest-tier 11” MacBook Air from 2011 are still serviceable and far from unusable, even with the latest operating systems installed. But on the other hand, I’ve replaced almost all the built-in apps on my iPhone and Mac with better third-party equivalents, even if they aren’t compatible with other system-level features on my devices e.g. Siri. (I’ve talked about how Apple could improve their app ecosystem before in this three-part series.)

And then the argument in my head shifts right back to me being in the minority, perhaps an extremely vocal minority, of Apple users that search for more granularity, more system-level access, and more robustness when software is pushed to its limits.

Verdict

Apart from rare instances of Apple opening up and revealing statistics or anecdotes or updates of any kind, there is simply no knowing what the absolute reality of the situation is. It leaves us all to our own devices to gather the best impressions we can. We in the nerdier subset of users perhaps fallen too far into the echo chamber to have any real chance at figuring out how Apple’s software is doing among the majority of its users. In the same sense, I don’t expect an average American iPhone user born and raised in America to truly understand what’s happening in China and the issues that users over there come across on their iPhones.

Things like Error 53 or the “Unable to Upload 5 Items” error encountered by Gruber could strike a nerve and very well be Apple in the wrong, but as Eddy Cue recalled on The Talk Show, he, too, encounters stupid inconsistencies that shouldn’t exist in an Apple product, like the lack of synchronisation of purchases within Family Sharing that he pointed out to his team.

It all just boils down to the fact that a company achieving unprecedentedly high growth - that puts themselves to unprecedentedly high standards*, with the start-up, team-based culture that they have, and the product pipeline no one knows about that they’re preparing for - simply aren’t able to keep up with the tasks demanded of them to maintain the quality that they want.

It’s also just room for improvement, something every company on the face of the earth has.

(Via Medium)

 

Further reading: Speaking of broadening perspectives, here’s the /r/Apple thread on the article.


*Standards, I should point out, only Apple knows the specifics about, as opposed to standards only nerds and power users will hold them up to with little basis on reality.