Pixel Envy

Written by Nick Heer.

The Software Slip

Dan Moren, Macworld:

But one challenge with continually moving the state of the art forward is that sometimes it comes at the expense of making sure the technology that’s already here works as well as it can. After all, if you have to add a dozen new features in a year, that could mean taking away from work enhancing reliability, and squashing bugs in existing features.

We’ve all encountered a slew of problems — some simple (if ridiculous) to fix, others are maddeningly difficult to troubleshoot. As our devices get more and more complex, it’s all too easy for some of those problems to persist for years. And though the best part of the Apple experience has long been “it just works,” the question is… what happens when it doesn’t?

I try not to write outright grief posts here because they are not very fun to read, but I have to get this off my chest.

I was too generous when I gave Apple’s software quality in 2020 a four out of five. It was certainly better than the preceding year, but I should have graded it a whole point lower, at least. 2021 has been even rockier for me, and not just with Apple’s software and services. I feel increasingly as though big software vendors are taking customers’ business for granted.

Quality used to be one of the factors that differentiated Apple’s products from its competitors — not just in the big picture of things “just working”, but also in the details. That feels much less true than it used to. There are big problems: MacOS Monterey bricked a bunch of T2 Macs, and the version of Shortcuts that debuted across Apple’s operating system lineup this year shipped in an unusable state. But the thousand tiny cuts are perhaps more grating: Preview windows do not open in the last-used position or size, unlike any other Mac app; audio does not always initiate in CarPlay, so you have to disconnect and reconnect your phone every so often; Music for MacOS is somehow getting more bloated and less usable with every update ever since it was called “iTunes”; the play/pause (F8) key behaviour is unpredictable and shitty all the time.

Then there are the error messages which, to Moren’s point, make it hard to know what to do when things go wrong. Sometimes, things just fail silently. When there is an error message, it is often unhelpful and vague. Last night, I was trying to edit a shared Pages document on my Mac. The moment I made an edit, I was told that a new version of Pages was available and I needed to update before making the change. So I clicked on the button to open the App Store, but did not see any updates available. It took a few minutes of back-and-forth before I noticed there was a new version but, because that Mac is stuck on Catalina, it was unavailable to me. So it turns out that a shared Pages document can be edited on a newer version which silently breaks compatibility, and the only way someone will find out is when they decode a cheery update notification. I would not mind except this sort of stuff happens all the time in software and services from Apple and plenty of other vendors.

I am not trying to use software; I am trying to get something done, and these tools are frequently an impediment as much as they are a boon.

Moren:

If Apple can’t improve the reliability of its software — and, to a certain degree, it can never guarantee that everything will work perfectly for everyone — it at least owes it to its users to create more robust resources for helping them help themselves. […]

This viewpoint is so engrained for software that it shows up in licenses and end-user agreements. For example, in Apple’s MacOS Monterey agreement (PDF, corrected from the original all-uppercase formatting):

To the maximum extent permitted by applicable law, the Apple software and services are provided “as is” and “as available”, with all faults and without warranty of any kind, and Apple and Apple’s licensors (collectively referred to as “Apple” for the purposes of sections 8 and 9) hereby disclaim all warranties and conditions with respect to the Apple software and services, either express, implied or statutory, including, but not limited to, the implied warranties and/or conditions of merchantability, satisfactory quality, fitness for a particular purpose, accuracy, quiet enjoyment, and non-infringement of third party rights.

Why is this acceptable for software, including operating systems? Nearly anything else you buy — clothing, furniture, transportation, even the hardware the software runs on — has a warranty. Consumer protection laws require manufacturers to stand behind their products and ensure they perform as promised. But not consumer software.1

This is not solely an issue with Apple’s software and services. It is increasingly not the except but the rule with software I use from larger companies — especially those that have adopted the software-as-a-service model. Rarely have I experienced this problem with software from smaller and medium-sized vendors, which is often built by developers who care about the experience of individual customers.

I am baffled that we are expected to rely on software, services, and operating systems made by companies that, legally, do not stand behind their quality.

See Also: Brilliant Hardware in the Valley of the Software Slump from Craig Mod last year, and my comments.


  1. Industrial software often comes with a warranty. Some professional software-as-a-service vendors offer a service level agreement, but this should not be confused with a warranty. If uptime dips below the agreed-upon level, the vendor may give a partial reimbursement; but, there are often many loopholes, and they will not necessarily guarantee the problem will not return. ↩︎