Apple’s Quality Control: A Fable?

September 24th, 2005

Can you imagine what might have happened as Apple prepared to introduce its new music products last week? Just days before the event, someone knocks at the door of the CEO’s office and asks Steve Jobs to postpone the press briefing. “Why?” he growls, and he’s told that both the Mac and Windows versions of iTunes 5 have serious bugs and need further development. “Release it now and fix it later!” he screams, tossing a black iPod nano at his visitor and barely missing the head.

Now I wouldn’t want to suggest this actually happened. At the same time, I find it difficult to believe that Apple’s iTunes development team didn’t realize there were major problems with version 5. Alas, it doesn’t happen to everyone, but a check of the online chatter, at Apple’s own discussion boards and elsewhere, shows a fair number of troubling symptoms. It sounds like a recipe for disaster, with complaints about the failure of the iPod to mount, loss of Podcasts (this one is particularly irksome for those of us who produce such broadcasts), loss of purchased music, audio dropouts and other irritants. Windows users, who are actually responsible for more iTunes downloads than Mac users, moan about installation difficulties, the inability to recognize their iPods and so on and so forth.

Here it seems that Apple, in apparently releasing iTunes 5 prematurely, has managed to tick off iPod customers on both platforms. Talk about being an equal opportunity offender! The promised version 5.0.1, which supposedly fixes all or most of these bugs, appeared in Software Update, on Tuesday afternoon. In a few days, all of these ills will be history and you’ll get on with your digital lifestyle, until, of course, the next major iTunes upgrade appears. Then, will you approach it tentatively, choosing to let it simmer until others have a chance to take it through its paces, or will you just assume Apple learned its lesson about releasing products prematurely?

Let’s turn the clock back to the days prior to the introduction of the iMac G5. Now Apple was surely under severe pressure to rush release of the product after having to put up with late delivery of processor chips from IBM. Maybe it hurried the final Q&A process and failed to detect problems that would ultimately lead up to an extended warranty program to fix defective hardware. Now I would assume that Apple could have used the extra time waiting for delivery of parts to fine tune the product, and maybe it did. Maybe the problems that afflicted far too many owners of the first generation version weren’t anticipated or revealed during the quality control process. It happens, and maybe some of the components performed in ways that couldn’t be anticipated.

But you wonder!

And what about Tiger? Didn’t Apple realize that there would be problems with networking, particularly accessing remote corporate systems via VPN? Was it all the fault of third party providers who failed to update their products in time, or simply because problems Apple knew about just didn’t rise high enough on the radar to delay Tiger’s shipping date?

If you want to be cynical about it, of course, you could also assume that Apple needed to get that minor Power Mac G5 upgrade out the door, and they wanted to have it ship with Tiger preloaded. Could the company afford to lose potential sales by shipping it with Panther and providing complimentary 10.4 upgrade coupons with the first production batch? Maybe the new systems required something that only Tiger delivered, and Apple didn’t want to invest in another Panther update?

What about next year’s arrival of Macs with Intel, MacIntels, or whatever? Should you assume the first models will be virtually bug free, just regular Macs with a different processor inside? Or should you expect that Mac OS X for Intel will have unanticipated problems and you shouldn’t be an early adopter?

Now I suppose one should pay heed to the oft-heard recommendation that it’s never a good idea to buy a point-zero version of anything. Let others put up with the problems, and wait for the bug-fix or second generation product before diving in. I would hope, though, that Apple won’t continue to give us reason to avoid its products for the very same reason. Steve Jobs is supposed to be a perfectionist. He won’t allow the company he runs to release any new product until it meets his personal standards of quality, or at least, that’s what they say.

But where was Steve Jobs when iTunes 5 was declared Golden Master? Did he just look the other way, did he not want to embarrass himself and Apple by postponing that highly anticipated press briefing? Or none of the above? Inquiring minds want to know, but Apple will never tell.

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