Written by Nick Heer.

Apple’s 2021 Report Card

Jason Snell, Six Colors:

It’s time for our annual look back on Apple’s performance during the past year, as seen through the eyes of writers, editors, developers, podcasters, and other people who spend an awful lot of time thinking about Apple.

This is the seventh year that I’ve presented this survey to a hand-selected group. They were prompted with 12 different Apple-related subjects, and asked to rate them on a scale from 1 to 5 and optionally provide text commentary per category. I received 53 replies, with the average results as shown below: […]

I love that Snell puts this survey together every year. It is such a good indicator of the way the winds are blowing for the world’s most valuable company. I am pleasantly surprised the Mac is recording its second year in a row as the highest scoring category, showing quite the turnaround from just a few years ago.

Federico Viticci posted a full copy of his survey comments and scores, and I am sure others will shortly as well. Mine was pretty close to the overall averages for the categories in which I graded — I did not score for HomeKit, Apple Watch, or wearables — so I do not want to post everything I wrote. But there were a couple of areas where my scores differed from the panel’s average that I wanted to highlight.

When I started putting this together, I remembered the new iPhones and Macs and iPads, and assumed I would assess a more pleasant year for Apple than I ultimately graded. I always write the paragraphs first and, in digging around for that information, my optimism started to unravel. I am not sure if I am being particularly harsh this year, but it feels from my more distant perspective like a bunch of things did not come together smoothly on Apple’s end. Product-wise, a brilliant year; but in software, developer relations, and social responsibility, a disappointing one.

Software Quality — 2

My experience with Apple’s software over the past year has been unpleasant. To be entirely fair, it has been that way for a while, and I think I was too generous with my grading last year. For years, there seems to have been a tick-tock cycle to Apple’s software cycle: some years are more feature-heavy, and some years are about quality and stability. This year felt like neither; more like engineers being pressured to deliver under extraordinary circumstances for the second year running.

There were big problems: MacOS Monterey bricked some Macs, a software update overheated some HomePod models to the point where they stopped working, Siri is still Siri, and Shortcuts shipped in an unusable state across all platforms. But there are little things that also do not work correctly that are as aggressively grating. On my Mac, every Quick Look preview flashes bright red. When I use CarPlay, audio sometimes does not initiate and I have to reconnect my phone. Nine of the bugs I filed in 2021 were about scroll position not being maintained in several high-profile applications. Searching Maps still returns locations thousands of kilometres away, even when there is a matching result around the corner. Apple’s Podcasts service became a mess. Mail does not return accurate search results for my inbox, let alone any other folder. Album artwork does not sync properly to my iPhone. If I resume playing music I have paused on my Mac, it will sometimes play with no audio, and I have to change tracks to force it to re-download. iOS’ autocorrect changes “can” to “can’t”, which is an open problem with “more than 10” reports. Media keys do unexpected things in MacOS. Dragging tracks to the bottom of the play queue in Music reverses their play order. There are a hundred more problems like these which I have reported in the last year. 
Apple is far from the only software vendor where it feels like products are rushed and bugs accumulate. But this is the Apple report card, not the one for Microsoft or Adobe. From nearly every vendor, including Apple, it feels like users’ continued patronage is taken for granted. To some degree that is probably true. Even so, I wish it still felt like there was a fight for my business.

I am sometimes running beta releases, but my main Mac is almost always on the latest public release. Right now, Music often crashes when switching between Apple Music, local library, and search views — on the very latest released version. A common response is that Apple needs time to fix bugs after release but, even if these operating systems mostly stabilize by about February, it is not fair that even typical users on the public release track have four or five months of frustrating bugs every year.

I am begging software vendors to please, please prioritize quality and stability.

Environmental and Social Issues – 2

2021 was rough for Apple’s social commitments. Even its calling card, privacy, was hampered. Yes, iCloud Private Relay was sort-of launched, and App Tracking Transparency debuted to the chagrin of ad tech companies. But a third-party experiment in the autumn found that many name-brand apps simply ignore users’ tracking preferences.

Apple’s biggest controversy in 2021 was its announcement of a new Child Sexual Abuse Materials detection system that was supposed to be baked into iOS but, Apple said, would only affect photos and video uploaded to iCloud. But the idea of locally checking files against an opaque database was torn apart. Apple said it has postponed that part of its CSAM mitigation plans as it reworks it, but the damage to its reputation has been done.

There are lingering geopolitical issues, too, like Apple’s dependency on manufacturing in China and antitrust-related cases around the world. Like, we learned in 2021 that a disputed archipelago in the East China Sea appears at a different scale for Apple Maps users in China. That’s still very weird!

I do not mean to accentuate the negative and ignore the positives — of which there were many — but these are two areas where I see Apple’s biggest liabilities. The third is developer relations, to which I also gave a score of 2. I am so impressed by the quality of hardware Apple has been shipping, and the company’s fast adoption of its own processors. But I remain frustrated by software that never seems to feel solid enough, developers taken for granted, and a mixed bag of social repercussions that come with being a corporate giant.