Is Apple experiencing a problematic decline in software quality?


While any new major software release is bound to have its fair share of bugs, the number and severity of glitches that accompanied the rollout of iOS 8 were far greater than we've come to expect from Apple. Many early iOS 8 users were quick to report issues as far ranging as Wi-Fi connectivity problems and abnormal battery drain. Even more jarring was the release of iOS 8.0.1, an update that embarrassingly killed all cellular connectivity for a percentage of iPhone 6 owners. iOS 8.0.2 has had its fair share of problems as well.

Apple today is as busy as it's ever been. New hardware every year is now the expectation, as is the release of major new software updates. Over the past seven years, Apple has consistently been able to release new iOS updates every 12 months, the delayed release of iOS 5 being the lone exception. And while Apple used to take its dear sweet time with OS X upgrades, Apple's desktop OS now seems to have shifted to an annual release cycle as well. Whereas OS X Yosemite will likely drop about one year after OS X Mavericks was released, consider the wait time between older versions of OS X. The gap between OS X Panther and OS X Tiger was 18 months while the gap between OS X Leopard and OS X Snow Leopard was a whopping 22 months.

With engineers at Apple working at full throttle to keep new updates coming down the pipeline, some have started to wonder if Apple's resources are being stretched too thin. Especially for a company like Apple which tends to have leaner teams, some have voiced the opinion that Apple needs to take its foot off of the gas just a bit to help ensure that future software releases have the level of polish longtime Mac and iOS users are accustomed to.

Kirk McElhearn recently wrote:

I've increasingly had the feeling that Apple is finding it difficult to keep up with all these releases, and that quality is slipping. This generally isn't the case with hardware – no, the iPhone 6 doesn't really bend, unless you apply a lot of pressure to it – but rather with software. Bugs abound; shoddy releases are followed by broken updates.

Echoing this sentiment, Russell Ivanovic wrote the following earlier this month:

Tim Cook keeps telling us that 'Only Apple' could do the amazing things it does. I just wish that Apple would slow down their breakneck pace and spend the time required to build stable software that their hardware so desperately needs. The yearly release cycles of OS X, iOS, iPhone & iPad are resulting in too many things seeing the light of day that aren't finished yet. Perhaps the world wouldn't let them, perhaps the expectations are now too high, but I'd kill for Snow iOS 8 and Snow Yosemite next year. I'm fairly confident I'm not alone in that feeling.

And lest anyone think these are just two lone opinions amidst a sea of overwhelmingly thrilled Apple users, Mac software developer Michael Tsai recently compiled a long list of folks articulating the same belief -- namely that Apple is trying to do way too much way too quickly. And oh yes, let's not forget that there's a new Watch OS on the horizon as well.

The conversation surrounding the uptick in Apple software glitches presents an interesting debate. And while it's only natural to suggest that Apple should simply ease up off the gas, I think the issue is a bit more nuanced.

A few points to consider:

Apple purposefully keeps its software teams small

Apple may be a gigantic company, but the teams working on the software that helps power our favorite devices are probably much smaller than you might think. Steve Jobs made no secret of the fact that hiring a select few A+ players is preferable to hiring a large number of B players. This hiring philosophy is still a part of Apple's DNA, which is to say that simply adding more bodies onto the iOS and OS X software teams isn't necessarily a clear-cut solution. Hiring more people is easy. Hiring the right people is much more challenging.

Furthermore, because Apple's software teams are relatively small and are comprised of the "best of the best", many software engineers at Apple are often pulled in numerous directions to help solve whatever pressing problem happens to require the most attention at any given moment. Recall that the release of OS X Leopard was delayed because key engineers temporarily left the project to help complete work on the original iPhone.

An Apple statement on the matter read at the time:

We had to borrow some key software engineering and QA resources from our Mac OS X team, and as a result we will not be able to release Leopard at our Worldwide Developers Conference in early June as planned.

So while a reflexive solution might be to simply hire more engineers, that's not necessarily Apple's style. Apple has historically trusted small teams to work on considerably large and important projects. To this end, it's business as usual over in Cupertino.

As for the recent problems associated with iOS, perhaps (and this is purely speculative) it has something to do with many of Apple's top engineers spending a lot of their time working on software for the upcoming Apple Watch.

Apple can't deviate from annual iPhone releases

Apple's business model, as it pertains to the iPhone, is built around annual release cycles. You can bet good money that the iPhone 6s, or whatever Apple may happen to call it, will hit store shelves sometime in late September of 2015.

Because Apple is beholden to an annual release cycle for the iPhone, it arguably has no choice but to adhere to an annual release cycle for software as well. Apple's hardware and software are inextricably linked and, at this point, consumers simply expect new iPhone models to come with snazzy new software.

Any deviation from that 1-2 punch would seem like a step backwards. Imagine, for a second, if the iPhone 6 launched running iOS 7 with the promise that iOS 8 would be available for download a month later. It stands to reason many folks would have simply waited a few weeks to upgrade. New hardware is great, but it's less appealing when it lacks the requisite software designed to take advantage of it.

Remember that the iPhone remains Apple's primary source of revenue. Not only does the iPhone enjoy insanely high margins, but it's also Apple's top performer in terms of unit sales. It's therefore hard to picture Apple taking any steps that might affect, even temporarily, the money train that is the iPhone. Further, sometimes the selling points for new iPhone hardware often rests upon new software: The iPhone 4s had Siri, the iPhone 5s had Touch ID, and the iPhone 6 has Apple Pay and an assortment of incredible new camera features.

Apple has more users today than ever before

Another point to consider is that the number of consumers using Apple software today is far greater than it's ever been. As a result, the number of users exposed to an initial release of Apple software -- whether it be iOS or OS X -- is much higher than ever before.

A larger user base results in a more vocal user base. What may have once been a Wi-Fi glitch that affected 2,000 iPhone early adopters is now a problem that affects 10,000 users across the globe. In other words, is it possible that current software releases are as polished as ever, and that the real issue lies in an increasingly large and vocal user base that has little to no tolerance for any type of software glitch? This theory might have held some weight pre iOS 8.0.1, but really, there's absolutely no excuse for an iOS update that literally breaks cellular connectivity.

Where does this leave us?

Going forward, it's hard to say what steps Apple should take to remedy this seemingly growing problem. Bolster its QA teams? Hire more software engineers? Those options certainly seem more practical than deviating from the annual release cycle for both hardware and software.

All the while, Apple hardware sales continue to reach new peaks and consumers are seemingly okay, however reluctantly, with giving Apple something of a pass on early iOS troubles. They are, after all, still buying iPhones in record numbers.

Still, the notion of blindly giving Apple a pass because it's, well, Apple, understandably doesn't sit well with some.

Daniel Jalkut, a former senior software engineer at Apple, tweeted the following earlier this month:

Looking ahead, one can only hope that Apple won't rush the release of the Apple Watch, which at this point still doesn't have a release date. As a new product, the Apple Watch will only get one chance to get it right, and one can only hope that Apple is doing all it can to ensure that some of the basic glitches that have affected recent software rollouts are nowhere to be seen on its highly anticipated wearable device.