Apple’s Elephant in the Room

I’ve been watching the story about Apple’s “declining software quality” unfold over the past year with amusement but never felt the need to write anything contesting this narrative until John Siracusa (on episode 155 of Accidental Tech Podcast) came to the conclusion that the problem must be real because the story keeps coming back up. To John’s credit, he allowed for the possibility that this is a perception problem but ultimately concluded otherwise because “no one else seems to be disagreeing”. I disagree.

This is in fact a perception problem, and one that originated from Marco Arment’s blog post over a year ago. A comment on a recent Reddit thread got to the crux of the matter:

There’s a reason why Marco’s “Functional high ground” post took off, it’s because it was vague enough that everyone could project whatever current bug they’re facing on to it.

As the comment noted there were no examples cited, which was a critical factor in it going viral. It suggested an urgency and a sudden onset of this crisis. Apple was great before but now they’ve lost their way.

It wasn’t until July, seven months after Marco’s original post, that we saw Marco publish a follow-up essentially admitting that the premise of his original post was based on the buggy discoveryd service that Apple had shipped (and replaced again with mDNSResponder). Hedged no doubt, but as close as you’ll get to a retraction:

The entire decline of software quality that I felt in January wasn’t all due to a single buggy network-lookup service — but, unbeknownst to me at the time, alot of it was. And that huge swath of problems that annoyed me every day disappeared instantly and completely as soon as I updated every computer on the network to 10.10.4.

Of course this post wasn’t as widely read. In the intervening time the narrative had taken root, it was hashed and rehashed countless times by the Apple pundits with blogs and podcasts and eventually the Apple community of developers and fans had come to accept it as truth.

Today the “declining software quality” narrative is the explanation not only for every bug experienced (despite the size of the affected user base) but also for product design decisions. The recent release of the Apple TV was lambasted by journalists and Apple bloggers for lacking features such as a remote app or keyboard support. Jessie Char captured the mood:

We now know from Craig Federighi and Eddy Cue on John Gruber’s podcast that many of these features were essentially unused by anyone who wasn’t a developer.

What’s going on? It’s a little interesting that John Siracusa mentioned that he isn’t seeing anyone disagreeing with the notion of Apple’s declining software quality because he himself completely disagreed with it when Marco’s original post was first published. If you follow enough people on Tech Twitter and listen to enough podcasts, you will begin to see this small and insular group start to say and believe the same things, which eventually leads to their audience coming to believe it as well. This echo chamber phenomenon is what I believe is at the root of this narrative and something John identified.

Marco is clearly in the “out of love” phase of the cycle. He has stated that part of why he wants to get a Tesla is because of wanting to be a fan of something new and to be on the ground floor. His frequent “cynical takes” on what Apple’s intentions are, are related. In fact he came to this realization himself on episode 148 of Accidental Tech Podcast; Apple is getting too big for his liking and he doesn’t seem to like that Apple’s focus is on anything but the Mac (John’s response to him was both insightful and self-aware).

Marco frequently asserts that Apple is measuring the wrong things, that they are tunnel visioned on metrics such as crash rates of their software while missing the forest for the trees, which implies that Apple executives and engineers don’t use their own products. The notion is silly and not borne by the facts. Apple’s installed base of users has grown massively over the past few years. Even if you dismiss this as a lagging indicator what you cannot dismiss is that customer satisfaction remains at an all-time high. More importantly, actual usage of Apple’s products and services continues unabated, something you would not expect if Apple’s software quality were truly declining. It’s likely that Apple’s disclosure that there are over a billion active devices in-use is designed to counter this narrative.

If the biggest example that can be pointed to is iTunes or its back-end (which seem to generate the most criticism) then there isn’t any validity to the idea that Apple’s software quality is declining. iTunes has been the target of complaints for as long as anyone can remember and it seems clear that it will be reworked much like Photos, iWork, or Final Cut have been (and likely receive the same backlash for missing functionality). The reason it hasn’t been done sooner is obvious: it has hundreds of millions of users and transacts billions of dollars in sales, revamping it from the ground up is akin to fixing an airplane while it’s in flight and won’t be done lightly.

There is a massive disconnect between enthusiasts and Apple’s broader customer base on the perception of Apple’s software quality. That is a PR problem for Apple to solve, not a software one.