Pixel Envy

Written by Nick Heer.

Christmas in June

On the week-ago episode of the Accidental Tech Podcast, Marco Arment delivered a good followup to his piece on Apple and services and my thing on Apple’s recent AI acquisitions:

What I can see is from the outside, and again, like, I mean every time anybody criticizes or has some kind of fear about Apple or […] is pessimistic about Apple in the springtime, everyone always says “oh, just wait, you’re gonna see. This is so stupid for you to be thinking about this now because just wait ’til WWDC.”

Well, you know what? WWDC is not like Santa Claus. [It’s] not magic. They’re not going to solve every problem that everyone wants them to solve in one keynote. That’s not realistic.

And people say that I am naïve for thinking Apple’s not working on this stuff. I think thinking Apple’s going to solve everything in two weeks is naïve.

I think we can look at what Apple services are today, and what they have been — things like Siri, things like search and relevancy and predictive inputs for things like Proactive on the phones and everything, and Apple News, and Apple Music even, like the recommendations [stuff] — and we see Apple’s current capabilities, and we know their past capabilities in big data, AI-based web services. And we see that they can do it, and they can manage to have a service out there, and it can work most of the time and be up most of the time, and be fast most of the time. But that’s, like, what was good enough five years ago — ten years ago.

And now, the companies that were really good at this stuff — like Google — they have moved to a different level of sophistication and performance and consistency, and we haven’t seen Apple match that level. And it took them a pretty long time to get to the last level.

I’ve been thinking about this since last week, and it was rather poetically brought to the forefront again with today’s iCloud outage.

Arment is, of course, correct in saying that Apple isn’t going to become great at this stuff overnight. They have certainly been struggling over the past couple of days in particular, but their cloud infrastructure and reliability has been weak for a very long time.

Steve Jobs, in an email to Apple employees after MobileMe’s fragile launch:

The MobileMe launch clearly demonstrates that we have more to learn about Internet services.  And learn we will.  The vision of MobileMe is both exciting and ambitious, and we will press on to make it a service we are all proud of by the end of this year.

Two things. First, that was ostensibly a direct copy-and-paste of the original email. How weird is it that Jobs used double spaces after periods?

Second, this isn’t intended as a cheap shot. There are lots of talented people working on this stuff. Many of you reading this are designers and developers, and I bet you’ve all made mistakes in your work. You know how crappy it feels when something doesn’t look or work correctly. Now imagine that it’s affecting tens of millions of people around the world and, yeah, that’s a shitty feeling.

What I’m trying to convey is that the sentiment that Arment and others have towards Apple’s cloud services is deeply-entrenched. Part of the problem is that their major events — like WWDC and the September keynote — are seen as milestones from both an external and internal perspective. They typically bring monolithic updates to iOS, OS X, and now watchOS and tvOS.

But cloud services are far more granular, and require updates on a much more frequent basis. It’s a completely different release style that requires a more fluid approach to development. And I’m sure that’s something that Apple realizes.

Sometimes, it’s as simple as better communications. The addition two years ago of notifications for when reports of problems with Maps are addressed goes a long way towards communicating to users that it’s an actively-developed platform. Conversely, the iCloud System Status page is frequently an embarrassment — I wouldn’t be surprised if it requires manual updates when there’s a problem.

My totally pie-in-the-sky hope is that these major iCloud outages are part of Apple laying the groundwork for a nimbler cloud services development architecture.1 I think we’ll see the first signs of this at WWDC. That’s not to say that everything will be hunky-dory overnight, but I would be surprised if they were not taking steps to modernize their development and release approach for cloud services.

Either that, or the Mac Mini that runs iCloud Drive is smouldering somewhere in Cupertino and nobody knows how to fix it.

Update: WordPress helpfully but annoyingly removed the double spaces in the quoted Jobs email. I have “corrected” this. Thanks, Kenny.


  1. Maybe largely built with Swift? I’m not saying that will be why it would be more robust, mind you.

    Also, the closer these sorts of things happen to WWDC, the more my mind warps those events to fit my hopes and dreams. C’est la vie↩︎