Sunday, February 7, 2016

Mossberg Discovers the Functional High Ground

Walt Mossberg:

Whether it’s the operating systems or the core apps, a major aspect of what makes both users and reviewers value Apple products is software that melds power, reliability, and ease of use. “It just works!” was a favorite Steve Jobs phrase.

In the last couple of years, however, 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.


In response to my inquiries about this, Apple said: “We have dedicated software teams across multiple platforms. The effort is as strong there as it has ever been.”


iTunes is once again bloated, complex, and sluggish. That has gotten even worse since the recent integration of the new Apple Music streaming service.


In my experience, on both platforms, Mail is slow at both receiving and sending Gmail messages, whether they are from personal or business accounts. Some messages don’t show up. Search misses things.


iCloud Photo Library, which stores all your images in the cloud, tarnishes the improved experience. It works quickly and accurately on my iPhone and iPads, but is slow and balky on the desktop. I am not one of those people with 50,000 or 100,000 pictures, but it still takes forever on the Mac to find older photos, and some show up as just blank thumbnails. That isn’t Apple quality.


My Safari bookmarks only sync intermittently across my Apple devices. Unlike Amazon’s Kindle app for Apple products, the company’s iBooks doesn’t remember where I left off unless I set a bookmark.

Jim Dalrymple:

There are only three reasons I can think of that software issues like the ones we find in Apple Music would happen at a company like Apple that prides itself on software that “just works.”

  1. They didn’t know how bad it was when they released it. (Highly unlikely)

  2. They are so big now, they just don’t care. They are Apple, so people will use the software regardless of what they do. (Please don’t let it be this one)

  3. They were given a timeline to release the software whether it was finished or not. (This one is probably, but very scary)

John Gruber:

Maybe this is the natural result of the fact hardware standards must be high, because they can’t issue “hardware updates” over the air like they can with software. But the perception is now widespread that the balance between Apple’s hardware and software quality has shifted in recent years. I see a lot of people nodding their heads in agreement with Mossberg and Dalrymple’s pieces today.


That we’re still talking about it a year later — and that the consensus reaction is one of agreement — suggests that Apple probably does have a software problem, and they definitely have a perception problem.


My little iCloud Photo Library syncing hiccup was not a huge deal — I was even lucky insofar as the two videos that couldn’t be found were meaningless. And I managed to find a solution. But it feels emblematic of the sort of nagging software problems people are struggling with in Apple’s apps. Not even the bug itself that led to these five items being unable to upload, but rather the fact that Photos knew about the problem but wouldn’t tell me the details I needed to fix it without my resorting to the very much non-obvious trick of creating a Smart Group to identify them. For me at least, “silent failure” is a big part of the problem — almost everything related to the whole discoveryd/mDNSresponder fiasco last year was about things that just silently stopped working.

Jason Snell:

I clicked OK and the Free button was now inactive. I typed Command-R to see if that would reload the iTunes page—no normal user would do it, but it worked because the App Store and iTunes is more or less a disguised web page—and then was able to click Free and download the app.

At some point in this process, the song I was listening to finished and another song began to play. It was a randomly selected track from my entire music library. The act of viewing the App Store had destroyed my music shuffle.

This is what Walt Mossberg means by “I dread opening the thing.”


Ever since I upgraded (cranks are reminded to add their air quotes here) to El Capitan, dragging something towards the top of the screen is an exercise in frustration, and dragging something to the menu bar in order to cancel the drag is a gesture set in muscle memory that I’m struggling to unlearn. Whenever you get close, Mission Control springs to life. Mission Control is great, if you have five windows open. If you have between 10 or 20 apps open and several of them have state-restoration, let’s-restore-everything, Quit-doesn’t-mean-clean-slate endless amounts of windows, it is an exercise in chugging. It takes half a minute, then you get one frame. It takes ten seconds more for the next. This is a MacBook Pro Retina (Early 2015), so it’s not a 2011 Mac mini with low memory and a slight limp.


Add to this storing all these Numbers documents in iCloud because I might need them one day on my iPhone. Then I do need them, and I open Numbers on my iPhone, and 30 documents start syncing now for the first time, and none of them get anywhere, and there are several duplicates, and I can’t even tell it which to download first, not that it matters because like I said, none of them fucking progress in the slightest.

This is not Haxies. This is not jailbreak. This is not unsandboxed, unencrypted, uncryptographically signed. This is Apple’s own software running on Apple’s own OS, running on Apple’s own hardware, talking to Apple’s own fucking internet services the way Apple pretend it just works if you do.

Nick Heer:

I’ll add one more to the mix: since watchOS 2.0, I haven’t been able to launch native third-party apps on my Watch. Apps from TestFlight work fine, as do WatchKit apps, but native third party apps continue to experience an issue associated with the FairPlay DRM that prevents them from loading — they simply crash at launch.


As I wrote in one of the bug reports I filed on this, I cannot believe watchOS 2 launched in this state.

Paul Jones (via Hacker News):

On OS X this is especially true: OpenGL implementation has fallen behind the competition, the filesystem desperately needs updating, the SDK has needed modernizing for years, networking and cryptography have seen major gaffes. And that’s with regards to the under-the-hood details, the applications are easier targets: it’s tragic that Aperture and iPhoto were axed in favor of the horrifically bad Photos app (that looks like some Frankenstein “iOS X” app), the entire industry have left Final Cut Pro X, I dare not plug my iPhone in to my laptop for fear of what it might do, the Mac App Store is the antitheses of native application development (again being some Frankenstein of a web/native app), and iCloud nee MobileMe nee iTools has been an unreliable and slow mess since day one.


What worries me is that AAPL the stock ticker and Apple the company are in a (self-driving) crash course with one another: AAPL needs to launch new products to drive growth and Apple needs to improve the products that have already shipped. The most valuable asset that Apple own is their brand, and that’s the brand that’ll drive sales of any car that may or may not be in development. If that brand name is tarnished by regressions and performance problems, what consumer would buy a car from the brand?

I’m still encountering many of the original El Capitan bugs. And I’m continuing to run into new issues. This week it was AppleScript in Numbers, AirDrop no longer working between my Macs, and the Xcode 7.2.1 update that broke the Bots feature.

See also: Accidental Tech Podcast.

Previously: Apple’s Software Quality, Continued.

Update (2016-02-08): Katie Floyd:

Mossberg discusses his piece in more depth on his podcast this week, it’s worth a listen.

Update (2016-02-13): On The Talk Show, Eddy Cue and Craig Federighi discuss Apple TV, Apple software quality, iTunes, Apple Maps, and Radar. I found this frustrating because they kept talking about how, by their metrics—which sounds like number of crashes—quality is better than ever. Any perceived quality decline is due to Apple operating at a larger scale or people missing old iPhoto features, rather than actual bugs. MobileMe had problems, but that’s in the past; iCloud is reliable. The fact that 200K iMessages are sent per second doesn’t make me feel any better about the ones I send or receive not getting through. They haven’t made major changes to iTunes because people are attached to the way it works, yet they had no problem throwing Aperture users under the bus when they thought Photos was the way to go.

Update (2016-02-16): The Los Angeles Times linked to my first post on this topic:

A lot of my research depends on PDFs, so Preview’s excellent features for highlighting and annotating them make it a must-use. But Preview crashes all the time. It commonly freezes or shuts down, sometimes taking the entire computer with it, when asked to render pages that Adobe Acrobat reader, the leading third-party PDF program, handles with ease.

Preview users have been pleading with Apple for years on the company’s user forums to fix Previews’s propensity for crashing. But Apple has failed to do so, or even to acknowledge the complaints, over three or four successive releases of new operating systems.


Conjectures about why Apple can’t get its software act together abound. The most common is that the company has become so trapped in its cycle of annual hardware upgrades -- a new iPhone had better appear every September, or else -- that it’s simply incapable of keeping its software maintained.

Jean-Louis Gassée:

I guess Federighi doesn’t consider iTunes and Mail to be core software. For more than five years, my daily use of Mail has been plagued with bugs.

Ben Lovejoy:

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.

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.


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.

Update (2016-02-17): See also: Accidental Tech Podcast 157.

Lloyd Chambers:

For some time now I get every text message in duplicate on my iPhone, a few minutes apart So does my wife. A “little thing”, but something that really undermines the value of messages and wastes my time and attention. iCloud is a serious problem because I get doubled-up address book entries, dead people returning to my address book, etc. My iPhone demands I “sign in to verify my identity” every day (often multiple times) at the worst possible time: when I want to use the phone (for things having nothing to do with sign in). Sometimes Apple randomly breaks critical functionality like personal hot spot. The iPhone gives an error alert every time I turn off call forwarding. The list goes on. So Apple Core Rot in iOS disrupts the value of the iPhone every day. The iPhone is now only half useful to me, really a mixed bag of usefulness and headache-inducing problems.


Apple Core Rot will only worsen with these clowns in charge: if you can’t see the issues and worse you’re in full-throated denial, they won’t be addressed. In MPG’s view, the problems now runs so deep that we are not talking about a few bugs; we’re talking about structural and leadership problems.

Martin Doudoroff:

I am a power user and software developer, and I know a lot of Mac users, most of whom are regular, non-techie people. I don’t know a single one who isn’t experiencing crippling frustrations of one sort or another with their Macs, and some with their iOS devices too (although I am going to focus on the Mac). Apple’s hard-earned reputation may have drawn many of these people to use Macs in the first place, but no amount of public relations and manipulation of perception cannot wave away the troubles they are experiencing.


Each OS X release has brought strongly-marketed, but mainly undercooked new features that disrupt long-held user processes. They’ve swapping out mature software willy nilly for unfinished and incomplete replacements. They’ve ignored bugs and glaring, productivity-subverting shortcomings for years.

Update (2016-02-23): See also: The Talk Show with John Gruber and Jim Dalrymple.

Update (2016-03-02): Mark Rogowsky:

Where Federighi went next, however, was on something of a series of tangents. He noted people are just flat out using their devices more, creating higher expectation. He explained Apple has internal metrics that measure software quality and said “I know our core software quality has improved over the last 5 years. Improved significantly.” But those metrics are about things like frequency of apps crashing not absolute numbers of users experiencing miserable software bugs. And here, Apple launched a defense that’s going to frustrate people struggling with some flaw in iCloud or iTunes.

Update (2016-03-14): John Siracusa suggests a different strategy for the Mac.

Update (2016-06-26): In Debug #81, Don Melton recalls texting Craig Federighi to get his iPad unbricked.

Update (2019-10-13): See also: Paul Jones.

8 Comments RSS · Twitter

Thank you, Michael! Until enough well-known, "reasonable" voices like your own point out how deeply this problem runs, Apple will simply plug their ears, look the other way, and chant. It is all too easy to attribute these problems to the overly high expectations of "cranks" and I fear the higher-ups have been doing so for years. Given the current state of El Capitan, I would trust an automated Apple car with my life!

"I cannot believe watchOS 2 launched in this state."

Just write it "watchOS/2", and it will be more believable.

"Thank you, Michael! Until enough well-known, "reasonable" voices like your own point out how deeply this problem runs, Apple will simply plug their ears, look the other way, and chant."

While your faith in Michael's sway is touching, I don't think that'll do it. Hell, if Gruber himself started writing 3 violently anti-Apple posts per day, I don't think Cupertino would even bat an eyelash.

I read a lot of Twitter feeds from non-tech print journalists who have follower counts in the hundreds of thousands and up. Not only are those numbers big, but their audience also includes lots of other high influence people. And over the past year or two, a crescendo of Apple UX criticism has been building and building from those folks. (Interestingly, an outsize amount of their complaints have to do with OS X, rather than iPhones, which makes sense given that they're writing for a living, and thus deal with their Macs on a daily basis.)

So folks at Apple already know they've got a not-insignificant UX perception problem, and that the perception is being spread more and more widely. I'm certain that info has been passed up to folks higher in the command chain. And guess what? I don't think they give a damn.

All corporate cares about is margins and lock-in. Lock-in especially. There have been bunches of studies about how the more Apple devices someone gets, the more they buy in the future, and the less likely they are to ever leave the ecosystem.

And lock-in works! Look at Microsoft. For years and years, their UX was widely perceived to be a joke, and through different methods than Apple, they relied on lock-in to avoid the problem. It really did work great for them and their shareholders for a long time. Until, all of a sudden, it didn't...

(None of this means I don't think Michael isn't doing an invaluable service with these kinds of UX compilations. Truth matters! Even if the immediate impact beyond spreading truth may be nil.)

Piece on the topic yesterday in the LA Times from business reporter Michael Hiltzik that links to you, Michael!

Apologies to François! I guess I underestimated Michael's sway...

"All corporate cares about is margins and lock-in."

I think that is just not true. The idea that every corporation is acting the same way, have the same values, executing by the same scheme etc is more or less ridiculous since it is very clear that some are doing things better than others. Corporations are run by people with culture and visions (or lack of vision) that has huge impact. Even though they act by the same economic principles they can still do it very differently. They can care about workers, customers, environment, share holders etc in different ways and degrees.

I don't think for example anyone would not argue that HP management made some terrible decisions and run the company into the ground when it came to the PC business. It was people at the to who made bad decisions. When it comes to Microsoft it is said that middle management and corporate cultures is part of what led to the downfall of Windows. At the same time Apple has very steady refused to follow the main course or even listen to shareholders when executing their vision (and, of course, not listen to what pundits say Apple should and shouldn't do to survive). But they can still change their mind (one of the greatest qualities of Jobs according to Ive, as I remember it).

Corporations can be better or worse, can be good or bad, why is that so hard go accept for some people? Clearly Apple is doing worse now when it comes to UX and software quality. That is sad to watch and frustration as a user. But it's not because of some unstoppable corporate nature law, and it can be reversed it the ones who makes decision want to, and if they cared more. Just giving up and saying that all efforts to make Apple change course is useless is the worst path forward.

"At the same time Apple has very steady refused to ... even listen to shareholders when executing their vision"

The two of us have been reading very different news accounts, and observing a very different reality...

[…] See also: lots of snarky comments about driving Game Center over to Craig’s house. […]

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