Not everyone buys into the myth of Apple’s software decline

Apple Software DeclineImage Source: Niels Epting

Earlier this month, a familiar narrative about Apple software – namely that it ain’t what it used to be – took shape after Walt Mossberg penned an article effectively decrying the entirety of Apple’s software suite, from OS X to iOS. Indeed, there were only a handful of apps that were spared from Uncle Walt’s polemic.

“In the last couple of years,” Mossberg wrote, “I’ve noticed a gradual degradation in the quality and reliability of Apple’s core apps, on both the mobile iOS operating system and its Mac OS X platform. It’s almost as if the tech giant has taken its eye off the ball when it comes to these core software products, while it pursues big new dreams, like smartwatches and cars.”

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Given Mossberg’s historic clout within the tech industry, the theme that Apple’s software has seen better days quickly spread like wildfire, even prompting well-known figures within the Apple community to list out their own complaints about Apple’s software.

Perhaps not surprisingly, the storm of criticism and negative press created by Mossberg’s piece was so great that Apple executives Eddy Cue and Craig Federighi made an appearance on John Gruber’s The Talk Show podcast to address some concerns and defend the quality of iOS and OS X.

Interestingly, Cue and Federighi had some interesting data to relay about the robustness of Apple’s software. For instance, Federighi explained that Apple’s core iOS apps in the first build of iOS 9.0 were less prone to crashing than even the most mature version of iOS 8.x. This tidbit surprised Gruber so much (beta software is traditionally buggy, after all) that he interrupted Federighi just to make sure he didn’t mishear the tidbit.

While some of Apple’s core software admittedly needs refining, painting all of iOS and OS X with the same brush seems a bit too convenient, if not a bit lazy. Indeed, actually providing solid evidence pointing to a widespread decline in software quality is easier said than done.

Touting this point of view, Alexandra Mintsopoulos, writing for Medium, eloquently argues that degradation in Apple software hinges more on perception than on reality. While referencing Marco Arment’s blogpost about the decline of Apple software a year ago (similar in nature to what Mossberg wrote), Mintsopoulos brings an insightful Reddit comment to the forefront.

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.

It’s worth noting that I hadn’t seen any widespread complaints about iOS or OS X in the weeks if not months preceding Mossberg’s piece. In a way, an article about how Apple’s software is worse than ever is arguably an evergreen piece because, as the comment above states, people will nod along in agreement no matter what.

What’s more, Mintsopoulos adds that the crux of Arment’s then-negative slant on Apple was completely addressed when he updated his Mac to OS X 10.10.4, somewhat negating his sweeping indictment of Apple in the process.

Apple isn’t perfect, and sure, some of its software needs some polish, but the notion that every piece of Apple software has been trending downwards in usability seems far-fetched and outside the experiences of most non-enthusiasts. Of course, the two main targets of criticism always seem to fall on either iTunes or Apple’s general stumbling with its various cloud services.

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.

It’s an interesting position, to say the least.

While some of Apple’s software most definitely needs a fix (I’ve been extremely vocal about the UI embarrassment that is Apple Music), I would contend that most of Apple’s software has gotten better with time, especially when one considers how many more tens of millions of users now interact with OS X and iOS every single day for hours on end. Even iTunes and OS X’s photos app are much better than they were even 18 months ago.

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