Apple and the pain of platform transitions

The stability of Apple's platforms has been the subject of a lot of debate recently. Whether you agree with it or not, there's a growing sentiment that the quality of Apple's software has gone downhill in recent years, and that some form of "Snow Leopard moment" is needed to get it back on track. Our own Peter Cohen tackled the issue back in November:

Apple made the decision a few years ago to adopt an annual upgrade cycle for its operating systems. That's brought tremendous innovation to the Mac and to iOS in a relatively short amount of time, but it's also brought a lot of pain for users. Here's to hoping that Apple can iron out the problems with iOS 8 and Yosemite in less time than it took them to get us a reasonably stable release of Mavericks.

Marco Arment brought a ton of attention to it, and made some excellent points both on his show, ATP, and on John Gruber's The Talk Show, as did many, many others.

I also loved Rich Stevens' take on it in last week's pixel project comic:

Apple software quality is slipping lately. Lately? Three words: Mac OS 9

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It reminded me of something I wrote two years ago called Seeing Apple through rose colored blasters:

When it comes to perception over time, we often distort out own realities. We tend to forget a lot of the things that bugged us way back when, or at least remember them with far less visceral annoyance than what's bugging us now. We feel like the problems of the present, as yet unsolved, are worse than the problems of the past, many of which were solved just fine.However, as much as these things might hold our attention now, they're no more a sign of Apple losing their way than they were last year, or the year before, or the year before that.By all means be upset. Be powerfully, passionately upset. Advocate for change. Just keep it in context and perspective.

Being passionate and advocating for change is exactly what Peter and Marco were doing. Unfortunately, keeping it in context is what people re-blogging them often missed. Ashley Nelson-Hornstein, however, missed nothing:

Expressing concern for the platform is healthy; it means that we care. Personally, I won't be jumping to hyperbolic sentiments or joining in on the sense of foreboding doom wafting through the public discourse. I forgave iOS 7 because I understood the incredible amount of work accomplished to pivot the platform in just six months. So for me, iOS 8 is my first real opportunity to be concerned about the state of the platform, and not evidence of a pattern of issues. I'll be justifiably concerned and worried if the same software quality issues are being discussed in 10.11 and iOS 9. Until then, I'm willing to give Apple the time necessary to let their plans propagate.

On Daring Fireball, Gruber expressed something similar:

My hope is that the reliability issues we are seeing in iOS and Mac OS X in recent releases are largely the inevitable result of Apple going through numerous transitions simultaneously. Extensions, XPC, iCloud Drive, Continuity — these things require coordination between all three of Apple's platforms (mobile, desktop, cloud). That what we've been seeing the last few years is this decade's equivalent of the first few years of Mac OS X — rapid development and flux that precedes an era of relative stability and a slower pace of change. Let iPhone, iPad, and Mac settle in — and let the rapid change and flux flow through Apple Watch, CarPlay, a new Apple TV, and whatever else comes next.

For historical context, Gruber also linked a 2004 Ars Technica piece by Eric Bangeman about the last time Apple was caught in such an era:

[Head of Apple software engineering, Avi Tevanian] conceded that Apple's current annual upgrade schedule "is not a sustainable rate. But you'll still see us going really fast," he said [and] rebutted comments that Apple had alienated some of its customers with the rapid pace of Mac OS X upgrades.

OS X 10.0 to OS X 10.5 included the transition from classic Mac OS to NeXT-based technologies, the adoption of Aqua, an entirely new interface and design language, and the switch from PowerPC to Intel. It also set Apple up for the current leap forward — increasingly light, increasingly power-efficient mobile devices.

That era was famously capped off by Snow Leopard, when Tevanian's successor, Bertrand Serlet, convinced Steve Jobs to let them spend the majority of OS X 10.6 tightening the screws on everything they'd done before. There was 64-bit, Grand Central, and OpenCL under the covers, but mostly there was a focus on refining projects that had already been put in place by Leopard. Marketing came up with the "no new features" hook, figuring going all-in was the best way through, and engineering, without even bothering with a wine name, made it happen.

What we're in now is another period of transition. iOS 7 included an entirely new interface and iOS 8, a major functional upgrade. OS X Yosemite included a bit of both. They also set Apple up for the next leap forward — increasingly decoupled, increasingly interchangeable end-points.

Take the Apple Watch by way of example. It's going to rely on extensibility so that the iPhone can project information and apps onto its screen. And because that screen is small, it's going to rely on continuity so it can handoff any activity that requires more involved interaction back to the iPhone.

Those technologies (or something like them) had to be in place for the Apple Watch (and other future devices) to ship. Sure, Apple could have taken longer to roll them out and they could have moved the watch from this year to next, but then we'd have spent another year hearing about how Apple was no longer innovating, how they were falling behind, and how they were doomed.

Instead, iOS 7, iOS 8, and OS X Yosemite shipped almost every major feature, and set up almost every new device, people had been asking for. The greater scope and scale meant greater turbulence, but it also promised greater rewards. So far the gamble has paid off with the big and bigger screens of the iPhone 6 and iPhone 6 Plus, but it will have to pay off again with the Apple Watch this spring.

Yes, there's been pain. It's arguable whether or not it's any more pain than last year, the year before, the year before that, the year before that, and so on. But it's inarguable that there's been pain. People at Apple know that. They and their families and friends use the same hardware and software we do. Whether or not the right people were paying attention to the right measures, recent events have at the very least made even those who might not have realized the sentiment aware of it now.

After all, what's a great leap forward without a great stuck landing?

Will iOS 9 and OS X 10.11 have as significant design and functionality changes? My guess is not. My guess is that, as in the past, we'll begin moving back into a phase of stabilization. Though my guess is that we'll still find a lot to — rightly — complain about.

Rene Ritchie

Rene Ritchie is one of the most respected Apple analysts in the business, reaching a combined audience of over 40 million readers a month. His YouTube channel, Vector, has over 90 thousand subscribers and 14 million views and his podcasts, including Debug, have been downloaded over 20 million times. He also regularly co-hosts MacBreak Weekly for the TWiT network and co-hosted CES Live! and Talk Mobile. Based in Montreal, Rene is a former director of product marketing, web developer, and graphic designer. He's authored several books and appeared on numerous television and radio segments to discuss Apple and the technology industry. When not working, he likes to cook, grapple, and spend time with his friends and family.

  • Just sounds like a bunch of excuses for recent Apple failures.
  • Failures? You mean like selling more iPhones and Macs than they ever have in history?
  • Success can hide problems is the famous line, and one every company needs to pay attention to. Might hope is that Apple continues to match the leaps with the landings.
  • I don't think anything they have done lately could realistically be described as "failures," but you make a great point that is routinely overlooked by both analysts and enthusiasts. Apple's great commercial success doesn't necessarily mean that they are being successful at what they see as their core task (product design). Huge sales numbers often hide the fact that people are dis-sastified with aspects of your product because all management sees are huge sales. Larger sales volumes also means that a tiny percentage of buyers can equate to literally tens of thousands of customers. You can end up with tens of thousands of users that actually HATE some aspects of your product, but the folks in the design room don't always get to even hear about it. Doing well financially and selling tons of product, does not necessarily equate to "success."
  • It's not just sales figures that are successful. Their software and hardware in 2013/2014 has been especially ambitious. The era I started following Apple, 2004, I'd give their dependability an A and ambition/scope a B. It was always a bit less and later than you hoped for feature wise but executed near flawlessly. Recent yeArs have given us nearly everything we asked for but stability has dipped to a B, B+
  • Rene, I have read several articles about "problems" with OS X 10.10 and iOS 8, but I have experienced none of them... and neither has anyone that I personally know. The articles have listed "problems" that (other than some personal opinions and dislikes) have NOT been universal. This inconsistency leads me to believe that there may be other factors involved, for example: people upgrading to Yosemite on drives with badly corrupted file directories, or users running incompatible third-party software. One thing that I haven't read in ANY of those articles, is factual statistics! What percentage of OS X and iOS users are running into problems that ARE due to the operating system itself? How does that percentage compare to previous upgrades of OS X and iOS? How real are those complaints? (I've personally exposed some complainers in comments sections to not actually own any Apple products themselves) There are too many generalizations being given, and no real facts or statistics being reported.
  • What failures?
  • What failures are you speaking of?
  • Wow Renee. I swear your work is like fine wine. It's gets better and better and better! Ty for this article, most notably the link to the Salon article.
  • The folks who advocated for a "Snow Leopard" release are no longer with the company and their replacements have nowhere near the status as the former. Also missed is that the comments Tevanian made were not borne of OSX being as bug ridden as it is today. As Jobs predicted would happen; marketing is running the company, while engineering left. As such, priorities change.
  • People keep saying that without citing any specific examples. What's different about marketing today than 5 years ago? What specific issues exist because of marketing?
  • What's different is how Apple operates. Take OSX for example; Apple used to charge for it and now it's free. You think that change was an engineering decision? As for hardware, look at the new iPhone; you think if an engineer was making decisions the iPhone would have the hideous camera bump? All the great Apple engineers fled the company. On a related note: Free products aren't going to get the same engineering attention as a paid product since it's been devalued, hence we see some big bugs and users complain. It doesn't really have an effect on company performance just a shift in expectations. I do agree with your statement that platform transitions are painful as those who complain will be left behind, just as there were in all previous transitions.
  • "All the great Apple engineers fled the company." People come and people go but having said that unless you have evidence, all you have is an opinion.
  • This entire site is generally opinion so I'm not sure where you think you are at.
    Are you asking me for which engineers have left Apple? (I thought that was pretty clear but I guess you can read this article for some hints)
    As for your statement, what engineers have joined Apple?
  • While I am new to apple. I have had iPad for a few years, but for the first time ever this year I got iPhone and MacBook. So being new and fresh set of eyes I have had zero problems with either device. In fact I love both far more then any other device I previously used. To your hideous camera bump comment I completely disagree. As such that proves this particular example you gave to be pure opinion nothing more. Sent from the iMore App
  • I see all this as karma for having the gall to sell a 16GB iPhone in a 32GB era. Joking aside, iOS hasn't bitten me as badly as OS X has this last update cycle. Yosemite's been a PITA on my workflow. Apple really need to do a Debian after the iWatch and whatever rumored Macbook Air replacement ships - slow down with features and concentrate on stability, releasing only when ready.
  • When you innovate, you will create issues and bugs. I'm not a fan of any tech company, but I can not fault Apple for bringing new ideas to the table, nor should any users. Be upset when the same bugs are present in the next version. For now, enjoy and embrace the good and the bad. That's how great new ideas are born.
  • I agree with jerry. These mobile operating system are highly complex and do so many things there are bound to be bugs. In the early days of iOS it didn't do half of what it does now. The more you add the more code and bugs that can arise. I am thankful apple pushes out updates to fix them in a timely manner. I would be shocked if apple does not throughly test all updates but things might only be found until it is pushed out to large groups. Even google had issues with lollipop when it was pushed out and all the OEMs are still waiting for a solid enough build to update their hardware to the new version. So while Apple may have a had a few issues they are not alone and you have to look at it as a whole. Sent from the iMore App
  • What's a "Snow Leopard" moment? Posted from the amazing whatever device I can afford because I'm a broke college kid.
  • correct me if I'm wrong but I believe that when snow leopard was released, it was sold to the people as the next exciting upgrade when in reality it didn't have a lot of new features under the hood. Instead it focussed on ironing out flaws, improving features and making the experience more smoothly altogether. So when somebody's calling for that snow leopard moment for iOS it means Apple should take the foot off the pedal and polish what's been introduced rather than keep pushing out new stuff.. Sent from the iMore App
  • I'll correct you because you are partly wrong. It wasn't 'sold as the next exciting upgrade' it was sold just as it was advertised as an under the hood update. Thats why it was priced at $20.
  • It was basically a paid "Service Pack" update that you had to pay for.
  • "Sure, Apple could have taken longer to roll them out and they could have moved the watch from this year to next, but then we'd have spent another year hearing about how Apple was no longer innovating, how they were falling behind, and how they were doomed." I would rather go through an extra year of that and have Apple polish their software than rush things out the door. As far back as I can remember, there's never been a year where Apple was never doomed. Key media figures will always have their heads stuck up their a****es and that will never change. It's important that Apple stick to its philosophy of making the best products and that includes software, just as much, if not more so, than hardware.
  • I love it when the religious fans like Rene try to make excuses for Apple's ghastly software quality and arrant disregard of their customers. Sorry, but when Apple asks me a thousand bucks for an iPhone, and the weather app never updates the weather, or when it does, shows two dashes as the temperature; or when the Maps do not find any single address I search for, and mislocates those it recognises; or when there is no support for dictation or voice controls aka Google Now or Cortana; or when Spotlight searches do not find anything; or when WiFi on iOS8 just plain does not work properly; since, you know, no-one ever uses WiFi or Maps or the weather; when all the msot basic functionalities simply fail owing to Apple's decision to ship alpha-quality software as part of the most expensive hardware on the market, then, yes, it is approrpiate to say that 'quality is slipping a tad.' For the price of an iPhone 4S, one can now buy a Lumia 930 at 380€. It does show the weather, can navigate and takes better pictures than a 1000 USD iPhone -- and seems quite stable. I do not own any Apple stock, but if I did, I would start asking questions about the company's leadership. The quality deterioration has been going on since Cook took over. Maps started it, and iOS caught on as soon as Cook started to 'improve' it.
  • Apple software quality has sank so low that I made the decision to hop off the boat. Thanks, but no thanks any more.
  • So I guess we won't need to see any new rants without punctuation from you ever again?
    If you think Rene was making excuses than you have as much difficulty with reading as you do with writing. It sounds to me like he is expecting that Apple may need to use their next upgrade cycle to perfect the existing features instead of rolling out a bunch of new ones. It makes total sense and the timing is perfect since they already rolled out the crucial features they needed. Sent from the iMore App
  • You will still get my rants, since I have to admin others' iPhones -- unfortunately. There would be no need for a 'breather' by Apple if they cared enough about their products to make them properly. They do not, since they do not have to. The brand sells whatever Apple puts out these days. The problem for Cook is, of course, that this cannot go on forever. Even Apple's brand prestige is not invulnerable. So, I guess he is making careful calculations about what the minimum sustainable quality level is and adhering to that to maximize profit. But by so doing, he has set the standard a wee bit too low, to put it mildly. I mean, the state of Apple software cannot be an engineering prowess issue given the size of the organization. I am sure they have at least a few competent software architects at hand to tell the product managers what the iPhone 4S hardware can and cannot run, or, for instance, that Maps, as to-be implemented, will just not work and should not be engineered that way, cheaper though that might be. In other words, Apple has an attitude problem (also known as arrogance issue) concerning its customers.
  • Seeing as there hasn't been any reported weblogs of OSX 10.11, there's a good chance that that may happen with OSX. But I definitely don't see Apple taking a "Snow Leopard" moment when it comes to iOS. Anything to do with mobile devices is pedal to the metal right now, and that's industry wide. There's no way Apple will want to be left behind in that segment. Love it or hate. But OSX is a different matter. Most of the people using OSX are power users or those that need that caliber device to do productivity-oriented tasks. So they need their systems to be reliable and stable. So there's no real urgency for a major OSX release every year.
  • That reply may have been punctuated incorrectly, but it was punctuated. Although, on a quick glance, I do not find any overt punctuation errors. There are some grammar problems, though, resulting from e.g. a verb-subject agreement mismatch. The sentence fragments I would still accept given that they follow semicolons which here split the list of issues into phrases.
  • I'm still waiting for Apple to release OS X to PCs. I would replace Windows in an instant. But I'm not ready to buy a Mac for double price of a PC and where the OS is limited to Apple. Dual boot OS X would be a dream. And I'm pretty sure Apple would more than double the sales of OS X if they released the OS for the masses.
    That could even bring me to buy an iPhone for the built in support in OS X to iPhone. Sent from the iMore App
  • "I'm still waiting for Apple to release OS X to PCs." You will reach retirement before that happens.
  • Double of $0 still equals $0. What possible reason could Apple have to give away their OS to someone that isn't going to buy their hardware? There is, quite literally, no gain to Apple in doing that.