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Is Apple's quality slipping?

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Over the weekend, amidst the noise of CES news seeping from Vegas, founding Tumblr CTO and Overcast developer Marco Arment voiced a concern I have been stressing over for some time. Titled "Apple has lost the functional high ground," it cuts straight to the heart of the matter: Apple's longtime brand promise of "it just works" applies to fewer and fewer products the company makes.

Marco, being a developer, is largely remarking on software. Apple's hardware only seems to improve generation over generation (although I have spoken to a frighteningly large number of people who have had to battle Apple in order to get products fixed). Apple's software, on the other hand, appears to have slipped off the cracker.

iOS 8 had more bugs than I've ever seen in an iOS release. Yosemite isn't just riddled with bugs; there are goof-ups that make the thing look more like Linux some days than a Mac. Oh, and remember when you could boot up your Mac and not wince as notification after notification filled your screen? Remember when that particular annoyance was the purview of Windows 98? OK, notifications are supposedly a "feature," but it's not always easy to remember that.

What's really troubling is the low priority that bugs and other issues appear to have at Apple these days. Is it still "easier" to use a Mac than a Windows machine or a Linux box? Sure, for the vast majority of users a Mac is still a more pleasant experience. Same with iOS, I suppose, but I have also spoken to a considerable number of people who switched from iOS to Android because Android provides "more power and more flexibility," as one non-techie user put it to me. That's not good. (Nor is doing crap like telling Panic to remove sharing options and then asking them to put them back, or neutering all widgets with data entry capabilities, but that's another post for another day.)

Over and over again I'm hearing people lament that Apple is pushing too far, too fast and not spending the time to clean up messes once made. As Marco says, "The problem seems to be quite simple: they're doing too much, with unrealistic deadlines." Apple, make 2015 the year of squishing the bugs. Yes, there's a Watch to be launched, and that's great. But do I trust Apple to "get it right" when lately there's been a lot of "oops!"? And let's face it, Apple has made a history of bungling time zones. My faith in Apple's Watch launch is at an all-time low, but that's largely because I look upon the glittering mass of issues the company has yet to address in a meaningful way and think, "So we're just going to add to this mess, are we?"

Yes, Apple is still top dog. Yes, Apple still makes the best products. But an incremental death from a thousand cuts is still a death. I saw Apple head down this path in the 1990s -- putting quality at job 2 (or lower) in the overriding rush to push products to market -- and I worry that it is following that playbook again.

Marco's thesis is that the issues are coming up in large part because Apple is marketing-driven, which it is -- and it has always been. The solution here isn't to fire anyone or sound the panic alarm, but take a good hard look at priorities. It would seem features and product announcements are more and more trumping bug fixes and that "polish" that Apple is renowned for. How about we don't need a new desktop OS every year? Market pressure is one thing Apple used to claim it didn't really worry about, but times have changed.

Adding to a product matrix when the code for your core products is slipping isn't going to help, it's going to be the last grain of sand atop a pile that is destined to slide. Here's hoping Apple starts taking these issues more seriously in 2015.

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