Functional High Ground

Some choice words from Marco Arment:

Apple’s hardware today is amazing — it has never been better. But the software quality has taken such a nosedive in the last few years that I’m deeply concerned for its future. I’m typing this on a computer whose existence I didn’t even think would be possible yet, but it runs an OS riddled with embarrassing bugs and fundamental regressions.


… Windows is still worse overall and desktop Linux is still too much of a pain in the ass for most people. But it should be troubling if a lot of people are staying on your OS because everything else is worse, not necessarily because they love it.

Lukas Mathis adds:

My main computer is still a Mac, but not thanks to anything Apple has done. It’s things like Coda, Pixelmator, Sketch, BBEdit, Kaleidoscope, OmniGraffle, or Interarchy that keep me on the Mac — despite the issues I have with Apple’s OS. By now, I’ve stopped using any of Apple’s own applications.

Daniel Jalkut disagrees with Arment and provides his own list of Apple’s prior foibles:

I’ve been following the company closely since my hiring in 1996. Since that time, the company has consistently produced nothing short of the best hardware and software in the world, consistently marred by nothing short of the most infuriating, most embarrassing, most “worrisome for the company’s future” defects.

Like these guys, I’ve also wondered if Apple’s spreading themselves too thin. What was once a simple product rubric — pro and consumer Macs, each in a portable and desktop configuration, plus the iPod — has ballooned: three-and-a-half different desktop Macs (the Retina iMac is the half), two-and-a-half different portables (the Pro sans Retina is the half), iPads of many generations in two sizes, iPhones of many generations in three sizes, accessories for all of the prior, two operating systems, more-important-than-ever cloud services, four different online stores, and various software packages. And that’s before you get to the Apple Watch, in three kinds and two sizes of each, with another operating system and the line’s own set of accessories. Yowza.

So I hit up some dude at the SEC named Edgar, who gave me Apple’s 10-K from 2014 and, for comparison, 2007:

As of September 29, 2007, the Company had approximately 21,600 full-time equivalent employees and an additional 2,100 temporary equivalent employees and contractors.


As of September 29, 2007, the Retail segment had approximately 7,900 employees…

So in 2007, Apple had approximately 13,700 full-time employees at the corporate level.

As of September 27, 2014, the Company had approximately 92,600 full-time equivalent employees and an additional 4,400 full-time equivalent temporary employees and contractors. Approximately 46,200 of the total full-time equivalent employees worked in the Company’s Retail segment.

In 2014, they had about 46,400 full-time employees at the corporate level. That’s a huge growth rate, but I’m not sure what to compare it to. I’m not sure there’s a way to accurately total the number of products Apple had in each year, and make a sweeping statement about the average number of employees per product. Each product is obviously weighed differently; the iPhone is arguably more important to Apple’s business in 2014 than it was in 2007, and iOS as a whole is vastly more important to Apple’s business today than OS X was at any point.1

I’m more inclined to agree with Jalkut: Apple is not in any worse shape today than it was, say, seven years ago. Their software is generally better than it was back then. If you find a crazy bug in Yosemite or iOS 8, I bet you could find something just as dumb in Leopard or iPhone OS 1.

A couple of years ago, when Tim Cook reorganized the company in a big way, I wrote that it would be a big fucking deal. I think we’re still feeling shockwaves from that executive shuffle. They’re not small, and they’re causing very real problems for very real people — users and developers alike. I don’t want to make excuses for the company, because the world’s biggest technology company needs critique more than it needs cheerleading. My wish list for Apple in 2015 is really long, but I don’t think that spells doom.

Yet I can’t help but feel hopeful. For every dumb bug or feature regression, I also find something that works far better than it ever has, and often far better than its competition. Perhaps the big thing Apple needs to do in 2015 is reassert its unique skill in creating unique, easy-to-use software that — hyperbolically — “just works”. Not necessarily with new features, but by making the features that already exist truly great.

  1. Ignoring, of course, the obvious conclusion that had OS X not succeeded in 2000, iOS would likely not exist today, or that if the iPhone crashed and burned in 2007, Apple as a whole might not be in business today. ↥︎