Marco Arment wrote about Apple losing the ‘functional high ground’ earlier this year, and it was met with tons of discussion – blog posts, podcasts, twitter battles and more. The part that hit me was the final paragraph:
"I fear that Apple’s leadership doesn’t realize quite how badly and deeply their software flaws have damaged their reputation, because if they realized it, they’d make serious changes that don’t appear to be happening. Instead, the opposite appears to be happening: the pace of rapid updates on multiple product lines seems to be expanding and accelerating."
Like every tech company nowadays, Apple wants to do it all. They can’t simply sell great phones (their hardware design and quality is still best-in-class by a longshot if you ask me) – they have to sell the best phones, build operating systems for them, and build an entire application, service and peripheral ecosystem around their hardware business. This is not an easy task, and the absolutely insane growth of Apple over the past 10-15 years has made it tough for their culture and hiring practices to keep up. Just look at this graph of their stock’s growth:
The easy thing to jab Apple about is their cloud services but I feel their system software and bundled apps are also beginning to lose its luster. The “it just works” pitch that sold me 15 or so years ago no longer is as open and shut as it once was, as even stock systems tend to be fairly unreliable at times with basic things like home networking, AirPlay, Spotlight indexing, Finder performance and Bluetooth connectivity. Most of these are OS X gripes and I’m hopeful that El Capitan turns things around here, but a purely anecdotal recap of my Mac use over the past few years leads me to believe there’s been a decline in quality. I bought a 2010 iMac that I sold recently to replace with a 2015 13″ MacBook Pro and its had a lot of reliability issues since I purchased it. Further, I’ve been through 3 laptops at work since starting there about 2 years ago now. Usually this was due to hardware issues, but the final ‘fix’ for a lot of my problems at work was to revert to a machine with Mavericks on it.
In my opinion, Yosemite is the worst non-beta Mac OS release I’ve ever used – and I’ve used everything other than the public betas of 10.0. While I didn’t run into any data loss issues or anything particularly catastrophic, the issues I see are more a simple erosion of the attention to detail and quality I’ve come to expect from Apple. That’s the tradeoff, right? You pay a little more for their fantastic hardware and in return you get a integrated, easy-to-use system that is light years ahead of the competition.
Anything that touches the internet generally is a weak spot for Apple, and while I do feel they are getting better (see the Photos app and it’s mostly solid CloudKit integration as an example), there are just as many examples of things like iWork, Apple Music/iTunes, iTunes connect, iCloud Mail and others being extremely unreliable and buggy. While I trust Apple in the sense that I know they are not looking to sell/profit from/give away my data, I do not trust them to actually have that data available or always correct. This is not good.
I can’t tell you the last time I really trusted software that Apple builds on the desktop. Instead of being excited about what they’re putting out, I instead turn my thoughts to “I wonder what will go wrong with this?”, which is hard to undo once you start thinking that way. Whether it’s the newest iOS, Mac OS, Photos app, iTunes or Apple Music, I’m always noticing how flimsy the entire product tends to be or feel. The most recent fiasco is the discoveryd mess, which caused most Mac users to have horrible wifi connection issues for months before Apple rolled back their previous daemon for networking with the 10.10.4 release. Kudos for them for falling on the sword and going back to it, but it’s baffling how it made it into the final release to begin with. My Apple TVs still have (2) after their names.
I still have laggy bluetooth on Yosemite nearly a year after it was released and at this point I have no idea if it’s ever going to get better. I simply started using a wired keyboard and mouse at work and when at home I just use my laptop’s built in keyboard/trackpad when I have to do any serious writing. Heck, I’ve even used my iPad with a bluetooth keyboard at times because it’s more responsive than my brand new, maxed out 13″ Macbook Pro. This was never an issue on Mavericks or before – even on a 2010 iMac with a spinning HDD.
I’m hopeful that this year’s El Capitan release will bring the focus on reliability and stability they have promised – early indications is that it is much faster and more stable even in beta releases.
Fortunately, one place Apple is still pushing forward and focusing on quality seems to be on iOS. Switching to Android would bring its own set of problems while solving others, so I’m not thinking about doing that just yet. Overall, I’m quite happy with the direction of iOS – especially with the upcoming features for the iPad and iPhone in iOS 9. However, my ‘junk drawer’ has continued to grow on Apple’s mobile platform, with me slowly using fewer and fewer default apps on iOS. In addition, while the design language around the iOS 7 ‘flat’ design is getting tweaks over time, I still prefer the Material Design used by Google at this time. A few years ago, I never would have thought I’d ever say Google is doing a better job at creating an attractive, consistent and usable interface, but they really are putting some distance between themselves and Cupertino right now.
While iOS devices are well built and the OS is generally very good, I still see more issues today than I did in years past. Some of that makes sense – platforms are much more complex than they were even 5 years ago, but the point remains. I’m seeing more and more Bluetooth issues as of late, although I also use more Bluetooth devices these days so it’s hard to pinpoint the culprit there.
Here is where I feel like Apple is falling in their face these days. Generally, the core OS works well enough for me if I’m on mobile or desktop, but applications like iTunes, iWork, Mail, Finder, Remote and others seem to be constantly rough around the edges. iTunes is the easy target here – instead of doing what is difficult but right with their flagship media product, Apple crams additional features yet removes none with every major release. Consider the list of default Apple apps and the replacement that I currently use:
- Apple Maps → Google maps
- Safari → Chrome
- Notes → Evernote
- Podcasts → Pocket Casts
- Calendar → Fantastical
- Weather → Check the Weather
- Reminders → OmniFocus
The only Apple apps on my home screen are Mail, Messages, Camera, Photos and Passbook. Not a great ratio. I mention this because it makes it easier for myself and anyone else to decide to try another platform if they like if their vendor lock-in is so low. Further, if users get in the habit of looking at default Apple apps on iOS and thinking “oh, I don’t need this” it actually creates a negative perception in their mind. Apple isn’t in the “surprise and delight” business as much as they used to be – instead, they’re focused on locking their users into their ecosystem, and honestly the apps they’re using to do that are not very good.
Here’s where things get really ugly. If you’ve been following Apple news lately, you probably have heard your share of horror stories about Apple Music amongst other things. While I personally have not had any data-related issues with Apple Music (but god knows I’ve got multiple backups of my music both on and off-site), the reliability of the service has been a real disappointment. Network connection issues, slow sync of things like play counts and ratings as well as serious downtime (Beats 1 was down for hours on their launch day and have had numerous other smaller outages in the past month) all have contributed to a rocky start for Apple Music, and I’m not even talking about the UX issues right now.
Other iCloud-based services are more hit and miss. Photos has been mostly solid for me, although I did have some issues with photos being duplicated on my initial migration to the new system. While not as fast as Dropbox, iCloud Drive seems to work fine, as does Reminders and other things that are based on CloudKit – which is a huge improvement over the previous iCloud sync functionality offered by Apple. However, not everything is based on this infrastructure and probably never will be. The entire iTunes/App Store ecosystem is based on WebObjects, which is a relic of the 90s. It’s surely been modernized and updated since then, but it’s very difficult to imagine the whole iTunes/App store back end being rewritten any time soon to handle something more modern. In addition, iTunes Connect is universally panned by developers as a pretty horrible place, while Google’s Developer Console is pretty well received as a modern, easy to use system for Devs to get their apps published and averrable to users for purchase. In short, a huge blind spot for Apple is their publishing platform for a massive part of their business and I’m curious to see if they have the will and ability to actually attack this huge blind spot head on.
My personal mindset is pretty simple these days – I feel like the more I trust Apple with a service that requires an application they built, the more let down I am. This is not a good trend, and it’s hard to undo this sort of thing with anything other than shipping great software and services, and doing it all of the time. People lose their minds when Google services go down because it happens once a year. When Apple services go down, people just shrug or write a blog post like this.
Additionally, I’ve begun to hedge my bets and avoid buying into Apple’s ecosystem too much when I can avoid it. This means that instead of buying lots of Airplay-compatible speakers, I’ll be buying a Sonos system instead. Rather than looking at something that is HomeKit based, I might invest in a Nest instead. And obviously, I trust Apple with their cloud services as little as possible – instead, I use Google’s cloud, Dropbox and others with my data these days. Instead of doubling down on Apple’s streaming solutions in the household, I’m buying a NAS that can work with any HTPC or video streaming solution. I’m not looking to get out of the Apple ecosystem per se, but I am making sure that if things continue to trend in a downward fashion I have a fairly easy exodus ahead of me.
That’s fine for Daniel, but how does Apple deliver the high-quality products we expect?
Apple has to find a way to keep up with the competition on the desktop and the mobile space while still delivering software that is as high-quality as their hardware is. In a lot of ways, the annual schedule puts their teams in a situation where they either ship their software in the fall with iOS/OS X (and now watchOS) releases, or they miss an entire year. I think Apple needs to reprioritize the marketing aspect of WWDC a bit and focus more on actually talking to developers about what is new in the keynote, and ship incremental updates as part of point releases when possible. Music for iOS, Photos for Mac, emoji updates and a few others come to mind as examples of when Apple has opted to push out new features/applications off-cycle, and this sort of thinking will help engineering teams ship things when they’re ready. Apple Music isn’t a perfect example because a lot of people have had horrible experiences with the cloud portion of the service as well, but the off-cycle release part is what I’m pointing to. Make WWDC about the system, the APIs and possibly look to emulate the ‘tick-tock’ model used by Intel as well as Apple’s iPhones. One year you can add a few large features and the next year can be a “stop, consolidate and listen” moment where performance, stability and API cleanup are the focus. By releasing other core apps on a point release schedule they’re less beholden to the major release events to push updates when they’re ready.
Another approach, and I know this goes against a lot of what Apple currently does, would be to think of their company in terms of divisions a bit more. That would help things ship when they’re done, instead of based on one monolithic schedule. It also would at least help the company from stealing resources from one group to get another project done on time. Apple famously announced Leopard delays years ago because they wanted to focus on getting iOS out the door, which speaks to their culture of using resources as a shared pool that can be interchanged and assigned to projects instead of being focused on making one specific project the best it can be.
That said, I’m just lowly end user that understands how difficult this stuff is, but that it has to get better. Apple is great at taking something complicated and making it simple, but they’re not great at taking something that’s complicated and making it both powerful and slightly less complicated these days. If that means new rollouts like Apple Music need to follow the Apple Photos/iWork/iMovie route of blowing things up and releasing a bare-bones replacement that slowly gets new features added over time, go for it. That approach makes people angry as well but I think that you get better software for it in the long run. The way things currently are trending, my patience with their products is slowly eroding to a place where I’d be considering making different purchasing decisions the next time I’m in the market for a phone/tablet/computer. Those are bold words if you know me at all, but it’s becoming more and more of a consideration these days.