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Matt Wilcox

Musing

Mar 10th 2015

What is Apple's software problem?

Earlier today I posted a quick musing on why I think software is Apple's weakest area. The post was unexpectedly popular, and it was just idle thoughts. Here I clarify those as a more thoghtful article...

My stance is this:

  • The weakest part of Apple's offerings is its software.
  • I have not seen much improvement in this area over the last few years.
  • The previous two points concern me, as an Apple user.

In the earlier post, a good number of people seem to have missed these points, instead focussing on whether or not people use iOS apps and going into tangents from there. So, lets get down to it - what are my niggles with Apple's software?

iOS

Easily the best example of Apple software; the OS that changed the world. There's no arguing its influence and suitability for the job it's been given. But it's not perfect - nothing is.

In the earlier article I noted that I don't use over 50% of the apps included in iOS. This is a point people argued about. Whether or not I use them or whether 'most people' do is irrelevant; it's the fact that I can not delete them which is.

Apple can have no good reason for this if their goal is serving the user. They may have good internal-to-Apple reasons, but that's not good enough. Apple strive for excellence in everything.

The stock apps that I've replaced with third party ones, and the stock apps that have simply never been of interest to me, are not apps that I want on my devices. But I can't get them off. This leaves them littering a siginficant portion of the screen - so I do what many people do to work around it; create a folder called some variant of 'Apple crap' and drop them in there. This is a hack. It's a hack documented since iOS4 introduced the concept of folders. Apple are aware of this. Apple have done nothing about it.

Those apps are still taking up valuable space on my system, and even my 64Gb iPhone5 is space constrained right now. There's a notorious problem with Apple's continual selling of meagre 16Gb devices at the low end; they very quickly become space constrained to the point where they can't even update themselves. This is a non-trivial problem for many non-techy users.

Apple's refusal to allow users to delete applications they don't want does nothing but exacerbate this problem, and it's particularly harmful to it's most vulnerable users: the tech naive. The people that Apple actually aim their products at.

OSX

OSX's main features and power come from its UNIX roots. Apple have done a lot to improve that in terms of user interface, graphics, and sound. OSX is, however, suffering greatly over time.

Snow Leopard was a release 'with no new features'. This was because the OS had become slow and buggy to the point where Apple decided it needed fixing. We're in the same state as Leopard was now; with each release of OSX since Snow Leopard the list of bugs and show-stopper problems becomes longer. It's fairly common now for Apple users to wait a few days or weeks before doing a major OSX update. Because we know stuff will be broken. Things like WiFi. Things that are critical.

This is hugely damaging to Apple. They are seriously risking the image of 'it just works' that they've taken many years to build. And it's because the software is poor.

We need the next OSX to be another Snow Leopard, and then we need Apple to not let things get this bad again.

iTunes

Long regarded as an atrocity on Windows, it's not much better on OSX. It's dated, buggy, confusing, and bar some cosmetic reshuffling (which confused a great many people) hasn't seen much improvement recently. Here are some issues that stem from iTunes:

  • Cover art that's wrong
  • Cover art that you scanned in so it was right being over-written
  • A hard to use UI
  • Confusing syncing with iOS devices leading to duplicate or missing music on the device
  • Match... doesn't work well

I'm sure there are other issues, but these are one's I've hit myself. These problems are historic, and they've not been addressed well.

Software Strategy

Apple used to make apps aimed at the pro market; they're re-focussing on the more casual user. That's fine. However the way this has been done is pretty poor.

When Final Cut Pro was discontinued, it was done with immediate effect. Businesses that were modeled around that software suddenly couldn't buy new copies, and had previously had no clues that their software was going to be retired. This was a shock, and a genuine practical problem for Apple's existing users. When the replacement program arrived, it was devoid of many features previously available. All in all, it was badly handled.

When Aperture was announced as End of Life it was done early. However, it was still for sale at full price - and had no warnings for photographers who hadn't heard the news there on the sales page. Its replacement program isn't out yet, but it won't have the same features. This too, is bad handling.

I seem to remember similar problems with Apple's office suite too, but I don't use that so I'm not too sure.

Apple are replacing programs with less featured versions, and they're doing it in a ham-fisted way.

The App Stores

Are poor. The Mac App Store in particular is devoid of some of the better programs available for OSX due to their policies. It leaves the store looking bare and sometimes feeling that it features second-rate programs. This is not good for Apple and its not good for users or programmers.

The iOS app store is more fully featured, but it suffers from another problem; Apples system design relying on 'top X' lists encourages dubious apps which are money grabs, trends to lower and lower pricing, lower and lower quality. It doesn't help anyone how inconsistently the store rules are applied, with many cases of apps being rejected and only allowed back in when public outcry brings it to the attention of someone with more power in Apple.

Safari

Is the only browser not to be on a rolling update plan in 2015. It's now one of the worst browsers there is for most of the year, until they finally update it again with a full OS release. Then it's merely middle of the pack.

The strategy of tying Safari into OSX as a bullet point for the slide deck on the next OS presentation is harmful to Apple users and causes them to use software that significantly lags behind every other browser out there. Even IE.

Conclusion

Apple's software is not bad. It is arguably good. It's part of the reason why I use Apple devices in the first place.

But Apple's software quality is not reflective of the quality, focus, or approach Apple strive for in their hardware. It is also not currently on a good trend - if anything the apparent trend is ever reduced software quality over time. This worries me. I hope it's worrying Apple, because it's clearly their weakest area.