The Elephant is Still in the Room

A few days ago, Alexandra Mintsopoulos published a diligent take-down of the furor a couple self-made Apple pundits recently produced over regrettably unsubstantiated claims of “declining software quality” at Apple. Her critique was probably well-deserved, and is worth reading:

However, I view with acute skepticism her conclusions that the software situation at Apple is merely a “perception problem” and that “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.”

I am a power user and software developer, and I know a lot of Mac users, most of whom are regular, non-techie people. I don’t know a single one who isn’t experiencing crippling frustrations of one sort or another with their Macs, and some with their iOS devices too (although I am going to focus on the Mac). Apple’s hard-earned reputation may have drawn many of these people to use Macs in the first place, but no amount of public relations and manipulation of perception cannot wave away the troubles they are experiencing.

Since Snow Leopard, by my estimation, Apple has been making a lot of changes for the sake of change. Each OS X release has brought strongly-marketed, but mainly undercooked new features that disrupt long-held user processes. They’ve swapping out mature software willy nilly for unfinished and incomplete replacements. They’ve ignored bugs and glaring, productivity-subverting shortcomings for years. Many of these changes have been in the name of applying iOS conventions to the Mac, although it’s never been too clear why that convergence would be such a desirable goal. You might cherry-pick a few success stories (Continuity, perhaps), but I could counter with plenty of failures (Launchpad?). The offenses range from glaring to nuanced, and although nobody seems to have started a comprehensive collection of them, they’re out there if you look. A handful of examples, off the top of my head:

  • Apple arbitrarily kills off Final Cut Pro (mature software), offers completely new, functionally-incomplete Final Cut X with no forward compatibility, instantly screwing over thousands of professional customers who had made massive investments in the Apple platform
  • Apple arbitrarily kills off iPhoto (mature software), replacing it with a bizarre, unfinished Photos app tied to yet another undercooked web service leaving vast numbers of customers baffled and crippled; (if you have the notion that Photos is an improvement over iPhoto, you’re overlooking a great deal)
  • Apple summarily and without warning packages a new version of Disk Utility in an OS X update that just happens to drop support for RAID. Everyone with a RAID setup is left in a seriously compromised situation. It’s a jaw-dropper.
  • Apple summarily rolls out new versions of their productivity apps (Pages, Numbers, Keynote) with completely rearranged user interfaces that add absolutely no new value whatsoever, omit previous functionality, and are at least arguably inferior to their predecessors; thousands of users have to relearn their tools and gain absolutely nothing in the process. This is the kind of move I used to associate with Microsoft.

It actually goes on and on. Some are huge, like these. Many are little tiny-seeming things with disproportionate impact on small parts of the userbase, such as the chronic changes to how the windows in the lowly Contacts app behave, or the gradual deterioration of the search feature in Mail.

Here are some more examples:

Meanwhile, if you ever find yourself in the Apple Support threads, you’ll find it’s a seething ocean of pain, doubt and frustration stretching back years. “It just works” isn’t looking too good these days.

So is this a “software quality” problem? Maybe those aren’t the right words? As Michael Simon has recently said on this very topic: “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.” ( He cites examples of his own.

And I still haven’t even gotten to iTunes.