I’m : a programmer, writer, podcaster, geek, and coffee enthusiast.

Apple has lost the functional high ground

Apple’s hardware today is amazing — it has never been better. But the software quality has fallen so much in the last few years that I’m deeply concerned for its future. I’m typing this on a computer whose existence I didn’t even think would be possible yet, but it runs an OS with embarrassing bugs and fundamental regressions. Just a few years ago, we would have relentlessly made fun of Windows users for these same bugs on their inferior OS, but we can’t talk anymore.

“It just works” was never completely true, but I don’t think the list of qualifiers and asterisks has ever been longer. We now need to treat Apple’s OS and application releases with the same extreme skepticism and trepidation that conservative Windows IT departments employ.

Geoff Wozniak went back to desktop Linux after almost a decade on OS X (Update: He appears to have taken the post down). It’s just one person’s story, but many of his cited reasons resonate widely. I suspect the biggest force keeping stories like this from being more common is that Windows is still worse overall and desktop Linux is still too much of a pain in the ass for most people. But it should be troubling if a lot of people are staying on your OS because everything else is worse, not necessarily because they love it.

Apple has always been a marketing-driven company, but there’s a balance to be struck. Marketing plays a vital role, but marketing priorities cannot come at significant expense to quality.

I suspect the rapid decline of Apple’s software is a sign that marketing1 is too high a priority at Apple today: having major new releases every year is clearly impossible for the engineering teams to keep up with while maintaining quality. Maybe it’s an engineering problem, but I suspect not — I doubt that any cohesive engineering team could keep up with these demands and maintain significantly higher quality.2

The problem seems to be quite simple: they’re doing too much, with unrealistic deadlines.

We don’t need major OS releases every year. We don’t need each OS release to have a huge list of new features. We need our computers, phones, and tablets to work well first so we can enjoy new features released at a healthy, gradual, sustainable pace.

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.

Update: I regret the attention this got, as it wasn’t my best work.

  1. An important nuance that the many sloppy rewrites of this article keep getting wrong (intentionally for sensationalism?): I’m referring to marketing as a priority, not “the marketing department”. I have no idea about the internal workings of the marketing department and how it does or doesn’t influence the company’s direction. Marketing priorities seem to be a bit too influential, such as requiring a new major OS with every iPhone release, or a new OS X every year, for their marketing benefits. ↩︎

  2. People keep asking me whether a high-level executive change — Tim Cook, Phil Schiller, or Craig Federighi — is needed. I don’t know, of course — none of us really do — but I suspect that’s not really the problem. What seems to be the problem is the overall apparently agreed-upon prioritization put forward by the entire executive team.

    This probably isn’t a “fire someone and fix it” problem — it’s simply an issue of poorly weighted priorities that can most likely be adjusted with the current personnel. ↩︎