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Apple’s bad September and the dangers of yearly release cycles

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In hindsight, the trouble began in 2012. That’s when Apple moved OS X to the same yearly release cycle as iOS. Since OS X has always been the Peter that Apple robbed to pay Paul (the iOS release cycle), I was concerned Apple would be writing checks it couldn’t cash.

Later that year, iOS 6 was released with the whole Maps debacle. That fiasco, however, was easy to write off because Maps was so new, and any new mapping service was going to pale in comparison to Google. Given strained relations between Apple and Google, Apple had no choice but to divorce itself from Google Maps, as painful as that was for users.

2013 wasn’t any better for Apple. iOS 7 had massive battery drain and Wi-Fi connection issues, and Mavericks, released a month later, had some well-documented issues with Gmail.

So far 2014 is like the Keith McCready line in Color of Money: “It’s like a nightmare, isn’t it? It just keeps getting worse and worse.” It started with a September 9th livestream that barely worked, and when it did, gave viewers a chance to brush up on their Chinese.

iOS 8 problems

Apple launched iOS 8 on September 17 and for about an hour HealthKit-enabled apps could be downloaded. Then due to last-minute bugs in HealthKit, they were pulled. A week later, Apple released iOS 8.0.1, but, again, pulled it within an hour. While it did fix the HealthKit bugs, it introduced minor bugs like killing cellular connectivity and TouchID. Lastly, there are also reports of an issue where resetting your iOS device also deletes your iCloud Drive data. For the record, I recently reset my iPhone 6 Plus, and did not lose any data.

All of these show systemic failure in Apple’s beta testing. It’s inexcusable for a major new feature like HealthKit to be pulled right after launch due to missed bugs. It’s even worse when an update makes your phone unable to make calls. Clearly, Apple needs a little help in regression testing.

Even though Apple claims HealthKit is working, there are still issues. All week I’ve been tracking my steps and viewing the dashboard in Today, it lost all the data and my dashboard was empty. If I try and view the data points, I just get a spinning wheel. It took three reboots and a ritual sacrifice to get the data back. It is very hard to have any faith in an app that arbitrarily loses its data.

iCloud Drive

Also part of iOS 8, but deserving of special mention, is iCloud Drive. iCloud Drive finally frees documents from an app’s sandbox and uses a Document Picker, where an app can open any compatible file from a folder in iCloud Drive. As an aside, the app will need to updated with the new document picker. While iCloud Drive for OS X is waiting for OS X Yosemite’s release, it was released for iOS 8 and Windows.

The problem I’m having is that it only sort of works. The biggest problem is folders. My iWork folders and documents sync between iOS devices, non-Apple application folders are a problem. For example, my GoodReader iCloud Drive folder only shows up when I open GoodReader on an iOS; it’s not on the web page, my Yosemite GM install, or my Windows 7 machine.

As a test, I created a folder named PDFs on the web. It’s not syncing to iCloud drive on either desktop OS. I tried uploading a file to the folder to see if that would force a sync, but it didn’t. Files put in the Apple-created Preview folder seem to sync fine. Clearly, something is weird with folder syncing. I haven’t been this worried about my data in iCloud since 2011.

I admit that running a beta release of OS X could yield problems. That said, since the version I’m running is allegedly the version the general public will be downloading soon, I’d hope it would all work. Also, I’ve always considered the website as the canonical truth for my iCloud data. The GoodReader folder not showing up there is disturbing. I reached out to GoodReader to see if they had any guidance and it seems like the issue is sporadic. Some user see the folder; some don’t.

So, what can Apple do?

Apple is famous for saying that there are “a thousand no’s for every yes”. Ironically, at the start at the video Apple asks: if everyone is busy making everything, how can we perfect anything?

This is a question Apple needs to ask itself. Also, it needs to ask “Is tying a major iOS update to new iPhone’s a good strategy?” I agree with Daring Fireball’s John Gruber and don’t think this is possible. At this point, Apple has gotten into the cycle of new iPhones and iOS in September, and new iPads and OS X release in October.

The problem is, Apple’s bad September could become a bad October, and a bad start to 2015. Next month we will likely see new iPads and Yosemite. iCloud drive will be usable by all devices. Next year, we have the Apple Watch. Each of these will need a dot update to iOS.

WWDC is a great place to introduce the new OSs. Maybe, though, a longer beta cycle and moving WWDC up to late April would help. Maybe, it’s time for Apple to accept that not everything they want to release can be tested accurately in three months. iOS 8 is a big, welcome, update, but maybe in this case, less would have more.

I will say that given Apple’s quality issues this month, I will be staying far, far away from the Apple Watch at launch.

14 Responses to “Apple’s bad September and the dangers of yearly release cycles”

  1. The reality is, bug free software is an objective, not an achievable goal. There are just so many possible interactions that testing them all would mean nothing would ever ship. As complexity increases, this adds further opportunities for failure. The issue is: does Apple have the infrastructure that successfully isolates failures, stopping a single point of failure from bringing down the whole system and can it isolate causes and correct for them once a failure is identified? The answer is a clear Yes on both counts.

    Can it do better? Of course. There’s always room for improvement. That’s an objective for a high quality company like Apple.

    The point about an easier way for users to report issues is sound. I would like that too. It’s well supported on OSX where a crash is followed by a single click dialog to send a crash report to Apple. Extension of this to iOS is to be hoped for.

  2. This is why I wait for at least two bug fix updates for ANY software I anticipate upgrading to, from ANY software developer. That includes for Android, Windows and Linux.

    Fools rush in where wise men never go, it is said. But it’s the habit of tech enthusiasts and fanboys to dive in before first checking that there is water in the pool. I wish I could be sympathetic to your whining. But having worked in software development for many years, and seeing the QA process first hand, I know how complex it can be. For every minor bug fix, there is a good chance that the fix might break another function. That is common with all app and OS software. And it is why I always wait.

    I am still deliberately running iOS 7, and happily so. I look forward to using iOS 8, but experience tells me that waiting has its benefits. That is not to say that the QA process at Apple does not have management problems, something I hope will be fixed. But the pressure to have a left-dot OS update ready for the new iPhone release must be enormous. Add to that the fact that iOS 8 must work with OS-X 10.10, and it’s even more complex than usual. All the more reason to be patient. Waiting a month won’t change your life. In fact, you might be better for it.

    Go outside. Enjoy the fall. The new updates will be fixed soon. Don’t get your shorts in a knot like the author did. If you are patient, you will have a great experience. I firmly believe that the new versions will be great. But it is human nature to not be perfect, and that is true for EVERY OS.

    One final thought: kudos to Apple for holding off on Healthkit. If it meant pulling it back for a few days, great. Pleasing fanboys and pundits means nothing. Healthkit will receive particular scrutiny because HIPAA and other mandates will cause regulators, healthcare activists and others to call out Apple and third party app developers for the slightest issue, real or perceived. Better to wait and get it right.

    With ALL OS and app updates, please be patient. If you rush, like the author did, you only have yourself to blame.

    As I said: Go outside. Be patient. Get a life. There is a world beyond all this techno-noise.

  3. Nicholas Paredes

    You may remember OS X version 1.0. This is neither new nor important, since security and functionality has rarely been an issue. iCloud is definitely an issue, but I can’t think of cloud functionality that I like at the moment outside of Dropbox. This is not an issue with Apple alone either. I present Windows 8 as an example. The Chrome OS may be a great example too.

  4. Rich Vasquez

    LOL. China sales have driven $aapl to what will be a 52WH this week. Updates happen automatically and are easily forgotten. Or have you forgotten the Maps kerfuffle???

  5. You forgot to mention that in Apple’s bad September, they have so far only sold twenty million iPhone 6s. Obviously a major disaster and a company on the ropes. I think, Mr. Crump, that you should change your name to Chump! You are obviously desperate to find something bad to say about Apple.

  6. Whodatninja

    AlL of those issues were short lived Crump. But I do agree with and even encourage you to skip the watch though. It’ll leave one more on the market available for someone else to buy that won’t just bitch about it forever.

  7. Good points Mark. I hope Apple takes the lessons to heart and stretches out software releases. As their software get richer, this become more important. Thanks.
    As for Apple Watch, I”m a huge fan of the concept, but not in a rush to buy one either.
    Still September may not be ‘bad’, when we hear quarterly result on the 20th.

  8. What a whiner, you’re making things out like they were the end of the world or something…they’re not!
    Here’s a tip, all software has bugs, it’s how quickly things get fixed, and Apple has been very quick at fixing any bugs! So hardly as big of an issue as your’re making it out to be!

  9. Amerist

    Apple could really use a better bug reporting and tracking system. As an iOS user I would be more inclined to report bugs if I knew they were going to get attention and get resolved. It also needs to be built right into the phone, that way Apple can collect any system information they need for the bug report right from the source of the problem. Yes, I know developers can use the Apple Bug Reporter, but we can’t see if a problem has already been reported or not and we are often asked to send screenshots or core dumps for analysis. This could be streamlined significantly.

  10. Mina Haylee

    Apple is trying to achieve contradicting goals, so naturally there are problems. They want to keep their plans totally secret until they do big reveals with general availability. There was a time when they were working with a smaller and less complex set of products, so they could account for more variables in their testing and get ready for wide release. By now, the complexities are piling up on top of each other and they just can’t expect their (relatively) small set of employees to do their testing and roll out bug-free software like clockwork.

    If they want to stop their plans from crashing and burning shortly after they’re announced, the only solution is more testing to account for varying use cases and configurations. In theory that makes it harder to keep their projects totally secret. In practice we have seen the environment has changed in recent years. Even Apple can’t completely control leaks. I would argue that leaks and official pre-release notices churn out a constant stream of positive press. Losing some secrecy doesn’t spell doom, especially for updates as opposed to brand new product categories. People are more forgiving about bugs during beta testing than they are when Apple’s big reveals go sour.

  11. Whatever

    What a whiny, moronic blog. Let’s see. You had no problems with your iCloud data, so whine. You had some problems with your data on HealthKit, but got it back, so whine. You had some issues with a software beta (which, you admit is only ‘allegedly’ — not actually — close to public release), so whine. The release of iOS 8.0.1 was fixed in 48 hours, so whine.

    Get a real job.

  12. I must agree. It looks bad. It is indeed increasingly obvious that smth is not right in Apple software management. Maybe separating the software and hardware upgrade cycles will help. However, it should be said that the problem of buggy new software is hardly new. As a long-time Mac user (System 7) I have learned to avoid OS upgrades until they have been debugged by other users. Even hardware is not immune. As a rule, I buy & use one cycle behind the latest. The hardware is cheaper and the whole system works much better.

    • Agreed. One of the most important principles of software reliability is don’t change everything at once. I write iOS software and discovered that iOS 8 breaks push notifications for existing apps (in case your phone has been quieter lately). This has forced me to rush rapid updates into the store, built upon the new iOS 8 SDK, which introduces a raft of additional bugs. The end user is confronted with everything changing at once, and can’t isolate the cause.

      The saving grace for me is that so much is broken on iOS 8, the end user is more likely to be blame Apple than me. But, over time, the components of a software system seek a common level. There is no reason for me to aim for 100% reliability in my piece if my end user will see a 1% failure rate due to other components anyway. I can just leave my bugs to get lost in the noise of other bugs I can’t control. And, as every developer begins behaving that way, the overall system reliability keeps going down in a vicious cycle (c.f. MS Windows 15 years ago).

      Apple needs to address this before it is too late. When the number of bugs in the system exceeds a certain threshold, it is nearly impossible to isolate and fix them.