Pixel Envy

Written by Nick Heer.

Grading Apple’s 2017

Jason Snell:

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.

[…]

Judging by my panel’s responses, 2017 was something of a bounce-back year for most of Apple’s core platforms. But there was still plenty of concern to go around, especially when it came to the quality of Apple’s software.

This whole thing is worth reading, but there are some responses I’d like to highlight.

On the iPhone (responders graded products, services, and initiatives on a scale of 1–5):

“iPhone X is a 5. Apple’s messaging on the battery issues was a 1,” wrote iMore’s Serenity Caldwell. “A year that should have been a slam dunk for the company was marred by security issues and battery concerns.”

If it weren’t for Apple’s inadequate initial responses to their degraded battery mitigation software, the biggest iPhone PR problem they would have faced in 2017 would likely have been the pricing of the iPhone X — and I think that would have been almost a non-issue.

On iCloud:

“While I am happy I can finally share my storage with my family, I think Apple has still a lot of work to do when it comes to cloud,” wrote Carolina Milanesi. “Collaboration on iWork is very rudimental compared to Google Docs.”

[…]

“2017 is the year I stopped worrying about data syncing — iCloud works consistently for me,” wrote Gabe Weatherhead. “Unlike previous years, I’m actually looking forward to more things moving to iCloud. I’d like to see Apple add more Dropbox-like options but I’m pretty happy where they are going with the service.”

It is remarkable just how far iCloud has come in the past few years. If you had asked me five years ago whether I’d want Apple hosting my photo library, I’d unequivocally say “no”. These days, though, I have little concern about storing my photos in iCloud, syncing all sorts of stuff, and even switching on the Messages in the Cloud feature in the latest iOS beta release. It really is very good.

iWork is still a weak point, though. The desktop apps remain buggy, and the collaborative features aren’t as nice as those in Google Docs.1 It’s frustrating because Google Docs’ web apps are horrible compared to any iWork app, bugs and all. Right now, I don’t think there is a suite of Office-like productivity apps that’s both really nice to use and has great collaborative features.

On HomeKit:

“I’m still satisfied with walking over to the switch to turn my lights on and off,” wrote Dr. Drang. “Quite reliable.”

Me too.

On software quality:

“Dear Apple: release less frequently and release better,” wrote Jessica Dennis. “Consumers don’t really mind more time between major revisions; we vastly prefer reliability and stability.”

[…]

“Many apps and areas of the operating systems are in disrepair,” wrote Michael Tsai. “With the tradeoff triangle of schedule/features/quality, Apple has clearly been prioritizing the schedule and (to a lesser extent) features. Major OS releases ship with large numbers of bugs, and there isn’t time to fix them all before the next major release, which introduces more.”

When I posted last year’s report card, I noted that 2016 was a bad year for software quality. 2017 makes 2016 look alright by comparison.

I don’t know what’s going on at Apple. Tsai’s hypothesis makes the most sense to me, but I have no idea if it’s reflective of what’s going on inside Apple. Maybe they’re preparing major platform changes that have impacted their ability to deliver reliable software; but, even if that’s the case, currently-shipping products should take priority, right? Maybe it has become too easy to release smaller patches, so bugs are shipped because they’re comfortable fixing them post-launch to meet a schedule.

There’s one thing I’m sure has had an impact for users who actually report bugs: all bug reports must now include a sysdiagnose file and, as of a couple of iOS and MacOS versions ago, those files are hundreds of megabytes large. When I filed a report a few days ago against a relatively minor Spotlight bug in MacOS,2 I had to upload a near-400 MB sysdiagnose file and a 120 MB Spotlight diagnostics file. Both of these failed to send on the first attempt so, in the end, I had to upload over a gigabyte of data. That’s discouraging. I understand the value of diagnostic files and weeding out people who aren’t committed to filing bug reports, but you’ve got to be really committed these days if you want to file a bug report. It means that if you don’t have half an hour to commit to filing a report, you’re probably just going to ignore it; that means Apple might not be aware of it, and it might not get fixed.3

I don’t disagree with the panel’s overall scoring. Their average grades for the Mac, Apple Watch, cloud services, and internet-of-things devices ticked up marginally; but software quality really took a beating. I hope that’s a priority this year, if not the priority.


  1. We use Google Docs where I work. ↩︎

  2. When I do a unit conversion from inches to meters, I get a result; if I try from inches to metres, I don’t. rdar://36716925↩︎

  3. I filed a tech note requesting a “slim” version of sysdiagnose that would give Apple enough information for bug reporting purposes without requiring so much user commitment. If you’d like to dupe it, it’s rdar://36717471. Update: This request was closed. Apple maintains that it’s more efficient to require huge sysdiagnose files. ↩︎