Apple's software woes: Problems or progress?

As Apple works to adapt one experience across many platforms, you bet there are going to be bugs.

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Twice over the past month I’ve had to erase and restore my iPhone. Both times were related to an attempted install of the iOS 9.3 Public Beta; instead of upgrading my phone with Night Shift, secure Notes, and better News, I got stuck in an endless Apple logo loop that required plugging into the dreaded iTunes and wiping my drive.

My particular story might not be a common one, but I’m certainly not unique when it comes to Apple software issues. Some of the most notable Apple journalists and bloggers have taken the company to task lately over nagging bugs and deficiencies in both its systems and apps, and you don’t have to be an expert to see that Apple is in something of a quality-control rut when it comes to the state of its software.

Apple’s hardware might be the impetus behind its massive profits, but its slick, industrial designs are only as good as the lines of code they run. If the software isn’t free of crashes and complexity, it doesn’t matter how beautiful the enclosure is. But while my situation was most certainly a nuisance, I don’t think this is the new normal. Honestly, I’m not even all that concerned.

Great expectations

Apple’s coming up on its 40th anniversary, but you wouldn’t know it by looking at its catalog. Every one of its operating systems and apps are less than three years old in their current incarnations, and several are still in their infancy. There’s iOS, which was overhauled with iOS 7; OS X, which received a massive redesign just a version ago; tvOS, which is about to get a huge expansion of Siri’s capabilities; and watchOS, which hasn’t even been out for a full year.

Aligning such disparate operating systems is no small task, and it’s quite impressive how quickly it’s all come together. Just three years ago, iOS 6 and OS X Mountain Lion were the most distant of relatives, and now Apple has four major OSes that share more than a passing resemblance. Just as the iPhone, iPad, and MacBook echo each other’s design flourishes, the apps they run are moving towards synergy at multiple screen sizes.

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But software is a tricky business. Where hardware is set in stone (or aluminum), software will never be finished. That’s the beauty of it; it can expand and improve as both the user and container evolves. For example, OS X was designed for a single-button mouse, and now it understands all sorts of gestures and touches.

Jony Ive is only just getting his feet wet in the world of software design, but he’s the perfect choice to merge the hardware and software worlds. Ive has clearly put a premium on seamless interoperability, and things like Touch ID, 3D Touch, the Digital Crown have added a touch of whimsy, almost magic, to how we use the device to navigate the software. Every one of Apple’s numerous systems are in various stages of transition, an immense undertaking that no other company is capable of carrying out. And there are bound to be some growing pains.

Room for improvement

Before the iPhone, hardware and software development at Apple didn’t have to be in lock step. New OS releases didn’t need anything special to take advantage of the latest Macs. Besides raw speed, the experience was more or less the same on a 3-year-old PowerBook as on a brand new iMac.

That’s not the case anymore. Product development is a two-pronged endeavor. Not only does Apple need to roll out new models year after year, it also has to tailor its software to take advantage of the latest hardware advancements. And this relentless pace of innovation isn’t just for the iPhone, but every product Apple makes.

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Even crazier than the schedule is the scale. Over the past decade, Apple has grown from a niche computer maker to one of the largest consumer electronics companies in the world, with hundreds of millions of customers. Behind the scenes, Apple is working to blend multiple devices and interfaces into a familiar experience that naturally adapts to whatever thing we’re doing.

With that comes speed bumps, bugs, crashes, and inconsistencies. It’s not about letting Apple off the hook, it’s about understanding why some apps and aspects of the OS might have taken a step backward in simplicity and stability. Apple is moving forward at such speeds that when something doesn’t work the way it should, several revisions can go by before it gets fixed. And by then, there are new problems.

More features more problems

I’ve probably never used a perfect piece of software, let alone a whole operating system. And Apple is no stranger to flaws. Back when OS X was first released, it was barely functional and didn’t become truly useable until Jaguar, two full versions later. And let’s not forget that the first release didn’t even ship with a DVD player.

Under Tim Cook’s Apple, things move at a much faster pace. WatchOS 2.0 brought native apps and third-party complications less than six months after the first customers strapped on their Apple Watches, and Apple Music has improved dramatically since the first buggy release. Even the upcoming iOS 9.3 that twice bricked my iPhone adds several new features requested by users, most notably a color-shifting f.lux copycat.

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It could be that Apple is just doing too much on its own. Apple’s biggest breakthroughs have always been on the software side, but if innovation comes at the expense of usability, any advancement gets lost in the transition. For example, Apple Music could have been the streaming service to beat with an enormous catalog, integration with your existing music library, and unparalleled voice control, but a clunky rollout saddled with confusing controls and frustrating bugs marred the experience.

It would seem that Apple could solve many of its problems with its tremendous cash pile, but I’m not so sure a rash of app acquisitions would help. After all, Apple Music was born out of Beats Music, but everything people loved about it was all but stripped away. Apple had made it clear that it isn’t going to sacrifice its vision for the easy way out, so we may have to deal with a few more rounds of bugs while it all gets ironed out.

If we’re still dealing with these nagging issues in two or three years, then I’ll be worried. And maybe by then someone will get around to fixing iTunes.

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