‘It just works’? Not so for too many Apple users

Apple's journey from 'it just works' to 'it just needs more work' may undermine the company’s reputation for quality

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Corporate slogans can be vapid, annoying, and meaningless. But sometimes they're not. Apple's "It just works" adage has meaning, and for generations of users who fled screaming from the nutty complexities of Windows, it was a reason to build their digital lives around a more expensive computing platform.

But when evidence appears that maybe it doesn't just work, it becomes news -- and the subject of passionate and sometimes ugly debate. Former Apple executive Jean-Louis Gassée, now an analyst, summed it up in this week's Monday Note column: "I've gotten a bad feeling about Apple's software quality management. 'It Just Works,' the company's pleasant-sounding motto, became an easy target, giving rise to jibes of 'It just needs more work.'"

Stronger words came from another respected member of the Apple community, Marco Arment, who wrote in a blog post, "At this point, my default position on Apple software in OS X has moved from ‘probably good' to ‘probably not OK.' They seem more interested in pumping out quantity by way of more upgrades. It's death by a thousand cuts, but it's death nonetheless."

It's worth noting, of course, that almost no one acts surprised when bugs show up in Microsoft's software. People get angry, of course, but surprised, passionate? Nope, it's simply standard operating procedure.

When members of the Apple tribe engage in public hand-wringing, it's time to pay attention.

Are marketing schedules trumping product quality?

It isn't often that I write "turkey" or "bozo" in the same sentence as "Apple." But I did in my tech turkeys post last year because the messy launch of iOS 8.0.1 was such an avoidable debacle. It was particularly egregious because the update was produced to fix bugs in the earlier release, but was itself so buggy it was pulled in a matter of hours.

It struck me at the time that Apple had rushed the update out without thoroughly testing it. Now critics say that launching without thorough testing has become too common within Apple's software groups.

Arment, a longtime developer, argues that Apple's marketing imperatives are pushing its in-house developers and engineers too fast. "I suspect the rapid decline of Apple's software is a sign that marketing is too high a priority at Apple today: Having major new releases every year is clearly impossible for the engineering teams to keep up with while maintaining quality," he wrote.

We're not done with iOS 8.x bugs, either. Something in the operating system appears to be interfering with iMessage, causing texts to stall or not get delivered. That's not the biggest problem in the world, but it is annoying and somewhat unsettling to see Apple's products trip over each other.

The overall problem seems to be quite simple, says Arment: "They're doing too much, with unrealistic deadlines. We don't need major OS releases every year. We don't need each OS release to have a huge list of new features. We need our computers, phones, and tablets to work well first so we can enjoy new features released at a healthy, gradual, sustainable pace."

The growing Apple experience: Bugs, bugs, bugs

Software should get better over time, but Glenn Fleishman, a respected journalist who is generally positive about Apple, writes: "To my recollection, Mac OS X 10.6.3 through 10.8 provided stability and new features, and they just mostly worked, as did most of the software released by Apple during that period for OS X. iOS is a different beast, in which people spend a lot of time in third-party apps. But even so, iOS 5 and 6 are, to my memory, more stable and reliable versions than iOS 7 and 8."

Fleishman isn't talking off the top of his head. His blog post includes a long list of concrete problems, including general instability in Yosemite, which has to be rebooted frequently; the massive accumulation of paging files; network shares and printers disappearing; screen-sharing problems; and more.

Mac developer Michael Tsai compiled a long list of comments and complaints from Apple engineers, including one former employee who said that fortnightly builds result "in massive instability every two weeks, until the final round of bug-fixing cycle stops all features being added, which can't finish in time because the OS has to be released at an Apple event."

InfoWorld's own Apple expert and frequent book author, Galen Gruman, says buggy or oddly behaving software is not a new Apple phenomenon: "There'd been problems in iChat before there was such a thing as iMessage. Mail has had odd compatibility issues with Exchange for years. Features have come and gone in many Apple apps, not just in the recent examples of iWork and Final Cut."

Gruman continues: "People have a rosy view of Apple's past, but my experience has shown thorns in every version of OS X. To me, that's the real problem, and it matters more today because so many more people use Apple software than ever have. Such flaws cause more issues as more pieces are expected to work together across OS X, iOS, and Apple's many services." 

Arment got a lot of grief for his post and says he's now sorry he wrote it. He's sorry because it was used for fodder "by sensational opportunists to fuel the tired ‘Apple is doomed!' narrative with my name on them." But he didn't retract his comments.

Apple isn't doomed, of course. Some of the criticism may stem from the fact that because Apple products have become so pervasive, flaws are more likely to be noticed. Even the best can slip, and I'd like to think Apple will be mature enough to take the criticism to heart and make its customers believe again that "It just works."

(I reached out rather late to Apple for a comment, but have not yet heard back. When I do, I'll include it.)

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