Is Apple’s Software REALLY That Bad?

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Apple’s products have long been known by the “It just works” mantra proclaimed over and over by Steve Jobs. It’s a mantra that, at one time, applied to both its hardware and software. And for the longest time, the mantra held. Indeed, it still holds, most of the time, for its excellent hardware products spanning phones, tablets, laptops, and accessories. But in the last several years the “It just works” mantra hasn’t applied to Apple’s software offerings much.

Some will say this is due to the death of Steve Jobs. They say the software has taken a downturn after his critical eye was no longer overseeing the process. Whether or not that’s the actual cause, however, is highly debatable. After all, Apple does have some of the most talented software engineers on the planet. And no, Steve Jobs was never coding iOS, OS X, or any of their built in apps.

I worked for Apple back in its renaissance heyday, from 2002 to 2007. At the time the company had only one major operating system, OS X, and I spoke the truth each time I told anyone OS X was the most stable, fluid, and useful OS that’s ever existed. OS X 10.6 Snow Leopard? Hands down, the OS with the least amount of bugs or problems ever. And the iLife suite of software that included iTunes, iPhoto, iMovie, iDVD, and iWeb? So well put together and so feature rich yet easy to use, all you had to do was show a PC person one or two of the apps and they would switch immediately.

But then things started taking a turn for the worse. OS X 10.7 was probably the worst, most bug-riddled OS Apple has ever released (and yes, that was under Jobs’ watch). And then we came to iOS 5 and 6 and things started taking a turn for the worse there too. Of course there was also MobileMe and Ping: both sucked. iTunes became bloated as well.

Though things have gotten better lately on the OS X front — 10.8 was a little better than 10.7. 10.9 redeemed itself even more. And 10.10 and 10.11 (both post-Jobs) are back to being very solid — the trend for the last few years seems to be that newly released Apple software isn’t as solid as it used to be. This is something Walt Mossberg recently drew attention to. And he’s right.

When Apple used to release a software product it felt 100% finished. Now each software release feels like a beta (or maybe even an alpha). Its software releases feel rushed just to meet a deadline for a hardware device launch, which hurts the user experience. Don’t believe me? Here are the most obvious examples I can cite in recent years:

Apple Maps

Without a doubt, this is the most glaringly obvious example. Apple Maps, when it was launched with iOS 6 was a low point for the company. It absolutely sucked. It was worse than a beta. It was an alpha (at best) and it really shouldn’t have been released without internal development extending for a few more years. To be fair, I’ve never gone back to Apple Maps since my horrible experience with using it for a few months before Google released a standalone Maps app for iOS. However, it is frequently noted the app has gotten much better, with Apple stating they have fixed over 2.5 million point-of-interest errors so far.

Photos for OS X

A more recent example is the Photos app for OS X. First, Apple announced this app almost a year before they finally shipped it with 10.10. Is that a big deal? No, but why make a reveal when the app isn’t even close to being done? It only puts more pressure on the engineers to meet an arbitrary deadline. The problem is when they did finally release the app it was obvious it actually was a rush job. Sure, the app was much faster than the aging and slow iPhoto, which it replaced, but it also offered a fraction of the features, which Apple has since been SLOWLY adding back in. These were features iPhoto had for years, including reliable face detection (Photos 1.0 supported this, but it was buggy as hell), the ability to change location metadata, and just basic UI features that made navigating the app harder than it needed to be.

Photos for OS X has gotten better with the updated version of the app in OS X 10.11, but that’s not because new features have been added; it’s because they’ve squashed bugs that shouldn’t have made it into the initial release anyway and added back in old features from iPhoto..

That being said, there are still glaring feature omissions too. Like where is the pre-configures Live Photos album? It’s virtually impossible to pick our Live Photos from the regular photos in your library as the app exists now.

tvOS

But the most recent example of a rushed non-“it just works” software release is with the new Apple TV’s operating system, tvOS. When the new Apple TV shipped last winter—within five minutes of using it you could tell they were trying to meet a marketing and holiday shopping season deadline. Yes, the hardware was solid and the Siri Remote was awesome, but the tvOS software was anything but. It was rushed.

You could tell that because of the lack of basic features and, even worse, the unfinished features that were included. For example the App Store on the Apple TV lacked basic categories and working search. You literally had to browse the entire store to find apps you might want to download. Another example was the absence of basic apps the previous Apple TV had had for years: namely the popular Podcast app. Yes, this has now been added back in, but it should have been there from the beginning. Then there was the absence of Bluetooth keyboard support and support for Apple’s Remote iOS app—each of which have now been added back in, after having been staples of the old Apple TV for years.

Now, Apple will be releasing tvOS 9.2 in March, which addresses many of the remaining issues with tvOS, including adding folder support, Siri dictation support, and more. But the point here is that these features should have been included from the beginning. Only in March—six months after the devices launch—will it finally feel like a 1.0 product.

And that is the crux of the problem with Apple’s software nowadays. Nothing feels finished (I mean, just look at watchOS on the Apple Watch). Some would argue it doesn’t matter, however. After all, Apple can just release software updates—as they’ve been doing—to fix bugs and add back i missing features. But in doing so, I would argue, the user experience is hindered because the software is a disservice to the excellent hardware they put out.

Here’s hoping that in the near future Apple will take a refreshed approach to software development and releases that adhere to Jobs’ “It just works” mantra.

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