The importance of bug reporting

The importance of bug reporting

There's a longstanding debate in the iOS and OS X developer community over the value of filing bugs through the Apple Bug Reporter system, commonly known as radar. Some believe it's invaluable, the only way to give Apple the feedback they need to ensure bugs get fixed. Others believe it's valueless, a black hole from which little satisfaction, if any, ever escapes. I'm not a developer but, based on the conversations I've had, both points of view are certainly valid. So, what good is filing radars and what should developer expectations really be?

If you're a developer, bug reporting is no different than any other aspect of any other relationship with Apple — it exists to serve Apple's best interests. Bugs hurt the experience of Apple's customers — which are also your customers — and it's in Apple's best interests to have you find and report as many bugs as possible so that the most critical ones can be fixed.

That last part is important to keep in mind. Apple's engineering load has scaled significantly over the last few years. There are now hundreds of millions of customers, almost 10 million registered developers, and over 1 million apps in the App Store. Apple is also releasing new versions of iOS and OS X every year. That results in a lot of bugs and a lot of filings. Add to that the Bug Reporter app on every iOS 8 beta device, and the bug screeners are being flooded at truly unprecedented levels.

Like any company, despite their size, Apple is time and resource constrained. They have to prioritize. They have to fix the showstoppers that prevent software from shipping before fixing the glitches that, no matter how maddening, are still manageable. They have to fix the bugs that can't be worked around before fixing the bugs that can. And they have to fix the bugs that affect a lot of people before fixing the bugs that affect relatively few.

That's where radar comes in. If someone at Apple wants to get a bug fixed, they pretty much need a radar to point to. If they want to get a bug fixed as a matter of priority, they pretty much need a lot of radars to point to.

That's why it's never safe to assume someone else has already filed a bug. Maybe they assumed the same thing. Maybe they simply didn't file it well. That's also why filing duplicate radars (dupes) is important. They're like up-votes. They indicate magnitude. A bug that nobody's filed is dark matter. A bug that only one person has filed is a tiny speck of light. A bug that's duped by dozens of people is a glow. By hundreds or more, neon.

Radars and dupes can also provide additional information. Even for known bugs, it's entirely possible Apple hasn't yet figured out a good fix. Seeing something in a radar or a dupe's description or sample project could potentially help make everything fall into place. The greater the number of dupes, the greater that potential.

What radars and dupes can't really do is start a conversation. Radar was never designed to be personable. It doesn't thank developers for their troubleshooting. It doesn't acknowledge the time and effort people put into filing bugs and providing sample projects. It doesn't give scores or points to tally. It certainly doesn't guarantee any particular bug will be addressed even months or years later. And if addressed, it doesn't guarantee anyone outside Apple will know about it.

Sometimes bugs get fixed under circumstances that can't be disclosed, in beta software or in code that supports unannounced hardware. Sometimes bugs don't get fixed at all because resources are being spent fixing bugs far more critical. Sometimes, many times, it really is a black hole.

That can be infuriating to a degree that some developers want to rage quit the system. After having talked to a number of people, however, and repeatedly getting similar answers, I feel it's safe to say this — to the engineers and managers at Apple, radar remains incredibly valuable.

While radar is best viewed as a machine that efficiently, ruthlessly logs all bugs, even if the less critical among them never seem to get addressed, the people on the other side are still very much human beings. Some of them come from indie dev backgrounds and know just exactly what filing a radar feels like from the outside. Others know just exactly what filing hundreds if not thousands of radars feels like from the inside. All of them have lists of bugs they want to fix and people who want them fixed yesterday. Getting anything added to those lists is tough. Getting anything pushed up those lists is tougher still. Without radars and dupes, it can be nearly impossible.

Yes, there are problems with radar. There isn't enough feedback, even automated. Simple status updates can never appear. The system itself is old. Yet Apple has started to make progress on a lot of that. The website has gotten a makeover. There's the aforementioned iOS 8 beta app and perhaps a Yosemite counterpart at some point. It's not the Apple and select partners enjoy, but it's the beginnings of a better front end. Hopefully that will continue. The Bug Reporter can't and shouldn't be a developer relations tool, yet Apple does need to find a better way to make sure no developer ever feels, literally, like they've fallen off the radar.

So, if you are a developer working on iOS 8 or OS X Yosemite apps and you're encountering bugs, please consider filing radars early and filing them often. Even if you never hear back about them, there are people working on those operating systems right now, people who want to make great software and provide for great experiences — people who will deeply appreciate the radars you file, and your having their backs.

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Rene Ritchie

EiC of iMore, EP of Mobile Nations, Apple analyst, co-host of Debug, Iterate, Vector, Review, and MacBreak Weekly podcasts. Cook, grappler, photon wrangler. Follow him on Twitter and Google+.

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Reader comments

The importance of bug reporting


Well said!

And, as just a lowly Apple customer, to any Developer out there who makes it a habit to report bugs, I thank you!

There are no "lowly" Apple customers. Apple and 3rd party developers all work very hard on behalf of their customers. And we're all grateful for your attention and for your business. Never forget that.

Relax, I was just joking--the faux self-deprecating sort to emphasize respect (in this case, for Developers).

I've reported a nasty bug in iOS 7 on older devices with 512 MB of RAM where iCloud service, including "Find my <device>" will shut themselves off. It's pretty easy to reproduce and has been reproduced by many others (there's a large thread in Apple's discussion forums). Apple marked the bug report as a dupe, but to date have not done anything to fix the problem. Basically their solution is to ignore the problem until all older devices break, yet iOS 8 will still support older devices.

I don't have much faith in Apple fixing reported bugs if they don't even bother fixing major bugs.

Definitely loving the new Bug Reporter app in the iOS 8 Beta. I have been using it regularly to report bugs in iOS 8. So far I have reported 15 all of which was promptly responded to back by Apple Engineers. I get this feeling they are tired of having to do x.0.1 updates 2 weeks after launch.

I'm an apple developer and I've reported bugs many times using the bug reporter app and it's nice knowing there's someone looking at them all.

Sent from the iMore App

Is there any relationship between the product Feedback options and the bug reporter? For non-devs Feedback seems to be the only option, but does that ever get connected to the bug reports in radar?

I believe in filing bugs as well as rating apps, reporting map errors and giving product reviews. I think as time goes on customers will see the value in their honest participation with these things and that everyone wins in the end. If you have problems and don't speak up how are developers to know something is wrong? On the other hand customers need to realize that their issue may take time to resolve. Customers also need to realize that reporting doesn't mean ranting. Screaming this app is garbage doesn't get things fixed.

I completely agree with this. If you find a bug REPORT IT! It doesn't matter if they ever get to it or not. If it's a common bug and hundreds of people report on the same problem, eventually they are going to fix it. This is not only in the best interests of Apple and customers but for developers as well!!!

Sent from the iMore App

I can say that in my experience it's a very valuable thing. I've submitted not only bug reports but enhancement requests for things that I thought were missing from the platform and would make it better. Although I'm obviously not the only one submitting the exact same requests or bugs as well as the fact that enhancements I submit may already be planned by Apple we the public just don't know about it. I've still seen both the bugs fixed but also enhancements fulfilled and on the off chance that no one else requested it or it wasn't in the cards the thought that I could contribute anything to the platform I use is a great feeling. I've also been asked by engineering for logs, screenshots and video of bugs which tells me that the bugs are being worked on.