Apple’s bug reporting system: An impractical black hole that’s frustrating to use

Reporting a software bug to Apple really bugs me.

apple bug
Apple

Everyone who uses a computer or any other computing device—tablets, smartphones, smart TVs, game consoles—know about bugs. These are glitches in an operating system or application that can cause something to go wrong. The name was given when a malfunction on an early electromechanical (pre-transistor) computer was found to have been caused by a moth.

Bugs can be just an annoyance, or they can prevent an app or operating system from performing its tasks. You may find that, say, a window doesn’t display as it should, which is a small problem, or that a specific app doesn’t run, or can’t accomplish a feature you need. In some cases, you can move on and continue what you wanted to do. Some bugs are random, and only happen occasionally, but others are “reproducible;” they occur every time you perform a certain sequence of actions.

No software is bug-free. Like typos in books, there are always bugs to be found. (I have formulated the Law of the Preservation of Typographical Errors, which states that, when proofreading a book, “For every typographical error that is discovered, another one will generate spontaneously.”) We accept that software has bugs, and, in most cases, we live with it. But there are bugs that prevent us from using our software or hardware, and those are very annoying.

Developers work hard to deal with bugs, and Apple is no stranger to this problem. To manage bugs and software, Apple has the Apple Bug Reporter at bugreport.apple.com. This portal allows developers and users of Apple’s public beta software to file bug reports, explaining what went wrong, with which app, and under which circumstances. It’s a useful tool, but not without problems.

Developers have long complained about Apple’s Bug Reporter, and for cause. While it was redesigned in 2013, its interface harkens back to Apple’s Aqua interface for the early versions of Mac OS X combined, perhaps, with iOS 6. I refrain from showing screenshots of this interface, because developer accounts are governed by a non-disclosure agreement, but it’s depressing to see this design.

It’s not just that it doesn’t look good, it’s also impractical. The text fields are all small, holding at most three lines of text, and they are not resizable. Popup menus are frustrating, because you cannot navigate them from the keyboard. And entering text in the form that Bug Reporter uses seems perilous; it’s the kind of form where you want to make sure you’ve got a copy of your text, just in case something goes wrong. For this reason, many developers write their bug reports in a text editor, then paste the text into the various fields.

Once you’ve filed a bug, it proceeds down a twisted road of uncertainty. You may never hear back from Apple. You may see bugs you’ve filed years ago that have neither resolution nor feedback. They’re not closed—which means they’ve been addressed—nor has Apple asked you for any further information.

That’s if your bug isn’t a duplicate of one someone else has filed. For many if not most bugs, you’ll get a reply saying: “Engineering has determined that your bug report is a duplicate of another issue and will be closed.” Or Apple will tell you that the feature “works as expected,” which is a passive-aggressive way of telling you that your bug really is a feature.

This, too, is frustrating. You may spend half an hour writing a bug report, assembling logs, and preparing screenshots, only to find that Apple already has a report for that same bug. If you could search existing bug reports before filing a bug, you would save a lot of time, both for yourself, and for Apple. But you can’t see the bugs that others have filed. A private initiative called Open Radar allows developers to file their bugs in a public database, so others can search for their own bugs, but not everyone uses this. (Radar is the internal name of Apple’s bug reporting system.)

Bug reporting is essential to the longevity of software, and Apple should make this process smoother, and also provide more feedback. Many developers spend a lot of time reporting bugs, and feel irked by the lack of response. If Apple improved the Bug Reporter, they would, perhaps, get more and better bug reports. We’d all benefit from that.

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