Archive for November 21, 2019

Thursday, November 21, 2019

Full Steam Ahead, But With Feature Flags

Mark Gurman (tweet, Hacker News):

Apple Inc. is overhauling how it tests software after a swarm of bugs marred the latest iPhone and iPad operating systems, according to people familiar with the shift.

Software chief Craig Federighi and lieutenants including Stacey Lysol announced the changes at a recent internal “kickoff” meeting with the company’s software developers. The new approach calls for Apple’s development teams to ensure that test versions, known as “daily builds,” of future software updates disable unfinished or buggy features by default. Testers will then have the option to selectively enable those features, via a new internal process and settings menu dubbed Flags, allowing them to isolate the impact of each individual addition on the system.

When the company’s iOS 13 was released alongside the iPhone 11 in September, iPhone owners and app developers were confronted with a litany of software glitches. […] This amounted to one of the most troubled and unpolished operating system updates in Apple’s history.


Test software got so crammed with changes at different stages of development that the devices often became difficult to use. Because of this, some “testers would go days without a livable build, so they wouldn’t really have a handle on what’s working and not working,” the person said.


Still, iOS 14 is expected to rival iOS 13 in the breadth of its new capabilities, the people familiar with Apple’s plans said.

It sounds like they are still in the denial. Feature flags may be a useful tool to help with testing, but much more drastic changes are needed. They don’t seem to have much interest in reducing the scope of major releases, so I would like to see them drop the annual release schedule. And, above all, make an internal commitment to quality.

The testing shift will apply to all of Apple’s operating systems, including iPadOS, watchOS, macOS and tvOS. The latest Mac computer operating system, macOS Catalina, has also manifested bugs such as incompatibility with many apps and missing messages in Mail.

The missing Mail messages bug remains unfixed in macOS 10.15.2 betas. This is the buggiest Mail release I can recall. I’m still busy working around Catalina bugs throughout the system.

Apple privately considered iOS 13.1 the “actual public release” with a quality level matching iOS 12. The company expected only die-hard Apple fans to load iOS 13.0 onto their phones.

And yet customers were automatically prompted to update to 13.0, and even 13.2 introduced major problems.

Peter Steinberger:

Feature flags in teat releases are Apple’s answer to the software quality issue? What about automated testing? And opening up hiring outside of Cupertino, to deal with the amount of radars and missing documentation.


I can tell you from experience that these “feature flags” carry a lot of tech debt that these managers don’t seem to understand. This may be the canary in the coal mine.

Michael Dupuis:

How about slowing things DOWN? It’s very much a feeling that they are just throwing things over the fence as fast as they can, and it shows in the horrible quality we’ve been seeing...

Kyle Howells:

Adding feature flags to betas isn’t the answer. It’ll just add more work.

Keeping the same process but adding extra steps doesn’t generally work.

They need to slow down, only release software when it’s ready, and prioritise quality, documentation and fixing bugs.

Jeff Johnson:

Annual OS releases are also destroying third-party software quality. We can’t keep up with the constant churn, and the tools are never stable. We waste so much time every year just dealing with Apple’s shit.

Jeff Johnson:

Apple’s software quality problems can’t be solved in iOS 14. They’ve accumulated at least 5 years of technical debt, if not more, from annual releases.

They’re deep down in a hole. Desperately in need of years without a major update.


Update (2019-11-26): Mark Gurman:

iOS 13 has had 8 updates in its first two months, the most in that same period since Craig Federighi took over development with iOS 7. See chart.

Scott Anguish:

It’s a myth that Apple doesn’t have remote writers. They have an entire department in Seattle.

Thomas Clement:

And this only works if Apple can detect before shipping that a feature is broken enough that it needs to be turned off.

Dr. Drang:

An old saying from the making of physical products seems apropos: you can’t inspect quality into a product.

Norbert M. Doerner:

They need a massive OS release moratorium, and look at what they have done, and why that failed. Then start fixing the bugs, and change the crazy yearly release cycle, it is utter madness #Apple #StartFixingTheBugs

Jeff Johnson:

Months since previous Mac .0 release:

10.1.0 6
10.2.0 11
10.3.0 14
10.4.0 18
10.5.0 18
10.6.0 22
10.7.0 23
10.8.0 12
10.9.0 15
10.10.0 12
10.11.0 11
10.12.0 12
10.13.0 12
10.14.0 12
10.15.0 12

A sensible progression... until 10.8

(Note that Steve died after 10.7)

Griffin Caprio:

Anyone who’s built even a moderately complex app knows you can’t just pepper in if/else statements and iOS is more than moderately complex.

Patrick McCarron:

The amount of technical debt those flags carry are no joke. Not always a clean removal either.

Update (2019-12-20): See also: MacRumors, Macworld.

Catalina’s Log Can’t Be Unprivatised

Howard Oakley:

If you’ve ever accessed the unified log in macOS Sierra or later, you’ll have seen the many log entries whose crucial information is censored with <private>. Apple introduced this to prevent leakage of protected information into the log, which is an admirable aim, but unfortunately it makes many entries farcical. If you’re really unlucky, the key information for which you’re accessing the log in the first place appears there as <private>.

Apps like Cirrus have relied on an undocumented setting which can be changed by the command log config --mode 'private_data:off' run with root privileges.

But this no longer works with Catalina.


Update (2019-11-27): Howard Oakley:

Hardly any log entries made by diskarbitrationd contain usable information in their message field. Trying to diagnose disk, iCloud and OpenDirectory problems from the unified log is almost impossible as a result. For those, we have generally relied on being able to disable log censorship.

In Catalina, Apple has removed that option to disable censorship. Saagar Jha has discovered that the only way to disable censorship now is to put macOS into a special diagnostic mode intended for use exclusively by Apple engineers. George Garside has packaged Saagar Jha’s code into a command tool which can be used to remove censorship in Catalina’s log.


With the spate of iCloud problems reported from those who have upgraded to Catalina, this is particularly ill-timed. It’s not as if Apple provides any alternative: iCloud is one service for which it appears to have completely forgotten to provide any diagnostics or utilities.


The unified log is not Apple’s <private> playground. It’s a shared space, with users diagnosing problems, developers hunting bugs, support staff fixing glitches, and system administrators managing their networks. For us all to get benefit from our logs, Apple needs to provide a supported means of temporarily disabling this censorship in the unified log. If it won’t, then it’s time for Apple to admit openly that it doesn’t really want anyone else using the unified log.

Google Shakes Up Its “TGIF”

Steven Levy (Hacker News):

With that, Pichai not only ended an era at Google, he symbolically closed the shutters on a dream held widely in the tech world—that one can scale a company to global ubiquity while maintaining the camaraderie of an idealistic clan.


Though Google didn’t invent the phenomenon of a weekly all-hands, the success of TGIF made it a much-emulated practice. Facebook held its meeting from the start; Zuckerberg would end by shouting “Domination!” Twitter had a version called Tea Time. You’d probably be hard pressed to find a successful startup or unicorn that didn’t have such a session. What made the weekly all-hands so attractive was its power to bind a workforce to a shared mission. The fact that such meetings could continue when the head count reached five figures and more reflected a crazy optimism that, with the right kind of culture, the physics of corporate alienation could be defied.

Now we’ve learned—no surprise—that physics wins. The big problems of these big companies have led employees to more aggressively question their bosses, and in some cases even sabotage them by leaking the secrets shared in these meetings.[…] In earlier times, employees tended to express their gripes with the expectation that leaders and workers were colleagues, too evolved to get hung up on power disparities. Now, with giant corporations worrying more about market dominance and regulators than about feel-good missions, that kumbaya sensibility is gone.

See also: Three Years of Misery Inside Google, the Happiest Company in Tech.

Schiller on Chromebooks in Education

Phil Schiller (9to5Mac):

You don’t envision a future where [Mac and iPad] merge?

No, that’s not our view. Because then you get this in-between thing, and in-between things are never as good as the individual things themselves. We believe the best personal computer is a Mac, and we want to keep going down that path. And we think the best tablet computing device is an iPad, and we’ll go down that path.

iPad benefits because we assume that you need to be able to do most everything with touch, and we don’t have to trade off on that experience. Mac assumes you want to do most everything with a keyboard and mouse input. We don’t have to trade off on that path. You can look at some of the other products that will try to go halfway between the two. They end up just compromising experiences. That’s not good.


This is completely at odds with the Catalyst initiative.

Phil Schiller:

College students’ [use] is dominated by Macs. In the majority of creative fields -- writers, video editors, music creators and programmers -- I think that’s an area that’s super strong.


We have this incredible responsibility to make sure the hardware and software is designed seamlessly together, works the way you want, and those things all ultimately make it so that as a customer, you have ease of use. That’s what we strive to do with the Mac.


You talked about MacBook as popular with college students. But Chromebooks have grown in the education market. What’s your perspective on that?

In the K-12 market, particularly for the lower grades -- K through six to nine -- iPad is doing really well. We think it is the ultimate tool for a child to learn on.

We’re really investing a lot into continuing to grow, both from the enterprise side with manageability and tools to helping schools from a learning experience. Everything from our Everyone Can Code curriculum that has our Swift Playgrounds app to help children at a very young age learn how to understand software and create opportunities for kids to become developers, all the way to augmented reality.


Kids who are really into learning and want to learn will have better success. It’s not hard to understand why kids aren’t engaged in a classroom without applying technology in a way that inspires them. You need to have these cutting-edge learning tools to help kids really achieve their best results.

Yet Chromebooks don’t do that. Chromebooks have gotten to the classroom because, frankly, they’re cheap testing tools for required testing. If all you want to do is test kids, well, maybe a cheap notebook will do that. But they’re not going to succeed.

James Vincent:

Schiller later tried to clarify the comment on Twitter, saying that Apple also provides “content, curriculum and tools” for kids, framing his remarks more as a comment on Google and Chromebook manufacturers than the children using them.

Steven J. Vaughan-Nichols (Hacker News):

I guess Apple is in the first stage of grief over the state of its education market share: denial. As my colleague Mike Elgan noted recently, “Google schooled Apple and Microsoft in the education market by growing market share from zero to 60 in eight years.”


And, no, it’s not all about price. Chromebooks are great machines, and vendors are adding features to push them into the enterprise.

Benjamin Mayo:

IMO iPads offer a better experience but are easier to break and not as affordable … so schools pick Chromebooks.

Daniel Bader:

The implication here is that Chromebooks can’t, or make it hard to, facilitate kids’ creative learning and growth. That’s grossly false, but it also misses that most teachers and school boards are cash-strapped and any tool, even a shitty Chromebook, is better than nothing.

Quinn Nelson:

Privacy aside, Schiller couldn’t be more wrong. Chromebook fills all the needs for schools and iPad leaves much to be desired.


And if I’m being frank, I agree with Schiller. They suck. But they’re perfect for schools and they’ve already succeeded. Google won. Better tools, better integration with schools, lower cost, cheaper hardware. Apple will never be able to compete. It’s over.

Eric Young:

When you hear Schiller & Apple press folk talk about iPad price as being the reason Apple lost

That should be eye opening

And it explains why Apple to this day is flat footed without any viable strategy in so many areas they compete in. And why Apple press folks are too

I’ll say it again. It really has nothing to do with price

Apple could give iPads away for free - and they do! They still lose and don’t know why

Google, Facebook, Amazon own the Apple users. Apple just doesn’t know it yet


Update (2019-11-26): Kyle Howells:

An iPad is nicer but is more limited.

If I had to pick a device I’d pick a Chromebook. It has a real desktop web browser and a trackpad. It’s a computer(ish) & can do computer things. An iPad is still too limited.

Chromebook vs MacBook Apple wins
Chromebook vs iPad Google wins

And that’s from a users point of view.

From school’s the Chromebook keeping everything in the cloud and the device being throw away interchangeable terminals is fantastic and exactly what they need.

SF Viewer Removed From the App Store


Are you a designer or developer who wants to view, compare or export SF Symbols on your iPhone or iPad? Check out SF Viewer here.

Aaron Pearce:

Just received a phone call from Apple regarding SF Viewer. They have made the decision to remove it from sale as its concept is not acceptable under their guidelines/license.

I may look to tidy up the code base and open source it in the near future.

It was rejected due to allowing users to export symbols to various formats and view the additional internal metadata of the fonts.

Honestly I was somewhat surprised that it even passed review once so this was an outcome I was expecting eventually. It was a very grey area of the rules.

It seems like without the export feature it would still be useful and hopefully non-controversial.


Update (2019-11-26): Geoff Hackworth:

I was sad to see SF Viewer go, but there’s another solution! Browsing system images is one (of many) features of my Adaptivity app. Supports multiple windows on iPadOS 13. I’m working on a grid view for the next release.