The Ministry of Short Memories

November 21st, 2014

I remember it well. Apple released a spanking new OS. As soon as people started to install it, the complaints come in, lots of them. It’s unstable, this, that or the other thing doesn’t work. Why can’t I just go back to the previous OS?

What’s wrong with Apple anyway? Why is the quality going downhill? Is Apple on its last legs?

Now it so happens that I’m actually writing about Mac OS 7.5.1, sometimes known as System 7.5 Update 1.0, which was released in March 1995. It was replaced that summer with 7.5.2, said to be more stable, and later by a more unified release, 7.5.3, which ran on both regular and PowerPC Macs.

Of course, all that happened before Steve Jobs returned to the company, ushering in a new era of innovation and reliability. Well, sort of. It’s not as if a major OS release was any more stable. In fact, people always complained about problems during the first few weeks, until one or two fixer-uppers arrived. It doesn’t matter which year, it doesn’t matter whether it’s for the Mac or iOS. Apple must have lost its taste for quality what with all the problems.

Predictably, iOS 8 has been regarded as the buggiest release ever, bar none. Maybe that’s why the adoption rate flags behind previous releases, but it’s never that simple, and making assumptions about quality may be a mistake.

Do you remember the complaints about iOS 7? The new interface was rushed, incomplete, and Apple pushed it out to meet a deadline before it was fully tested. It took several updates to fix critical problems, give customers more options to change the interface excesses and deliver better performance for older devices, such as the iPhone 4. How soon people forget.

This year I read an article claiming that Apple reported more fixed bugs in maintenance updates during the first two months since iOS 8 came out, at least compared to any of its predecessors. But the number was calculated by guessing how many unmentioned problems were fixed with iOS 8.1.1. Otherwise, there would be no increase.

As with last year and iOS 7.1, iOS 8.1.1 promised improved performance for the oldest supported gear. For this year, that’s the iPhone 4s and iPad 2. Indeed, I read dozens of articles touting the reported improvements without actually putting the claim to the test. At the end of the day, Ars Technica did a set of tests on the iPhone 4s, and concluded that, except for Safari performance, particularly in reloading tabs, things ran slightly but not noticeably faster.

During this period, most of the media was simply quoting Apple’s claims of performance improvements without putting those claims to the test, or even alerting readers that the statement hadn’t been verified.

Moving to the Mac: The OS X Yosemite upgrade was, to me, mostly non-eventful. I didn’t notice any particularly serious problems, just a few minor irritants. The most serious was that the number of messages in large mailboxes in Mail stopped displaying after the app ran awhile. I know that Apple was alerted to the problem, but evidently has other priorities.

The OS X 10.10.1 update supposedly fixed problems with erratic Wi-Fi networking. For many it did, but for some it didn’t. But such situations are not unusual, and similar problems have occurred in past years. Sometimes one fix causes another problem, or it may be that several glitches are involved, and Apple repairs some of the problems to get a fix out quickly. So there will inevitably be a 10.10.2 update that will have even more fixes and changes. In fact, that version is even now reportedly under development, and being tested by Mac developers.

As a general rule, if you want to avoid the most serious early-release irritants, wait a couple of months before installing an OS upgrade from Apple, or even Microsoft and Google. You should expect that there will be last-minute glitches that are uncaught or bugs that were overlooked for some reason, which will be addressed in ongoing updates. It surprises me that this simple fact is overlooked with each year’s complaints about declines in software quality.

When it comes to Apple hardware, again things aren’t always as smooth as you might think. Some regard the alleged “AntennaGate” defect, where holding an iPhone 4 the “wrong way” would kill reception quality, as a serious problem should have forced Apple to recall and redesign the product. But just being safe and using a case would protect the sensitive spots. While never admitting anything was wrong, Apple did offer free bumper cases for a few months, and the complaints mostly stopped.

Apple did make some antenna design changes for the iPhone 4s that improved reception, but nonetheless maintained that all mobile handsets suffered reception problems if you held them in certain ways. Some were more sensitive, some less, but that’s how the technology works.

And don’t forget about those claimed bending problems with the iPhone 6 Plus. You don’t hear much about it anymore. Even Consumer Reports said the handset was sturdy enough, so where do you take it from there?

The real response to whether Apple is doing too much these days and making too many mistakes is nuanced. More people are buying these products, and more people are downloading software, so by sheer numbers alone, you might find a higher number of problems. In some years it may have seemed better, but I don’t see that the products you buy or download from Apple these days are necessarily less reliable than in the past.

It is very easy to forget past troubles, particularly if they were fixed in the normal course of events.

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3 Responses to “The Ministry of Short Memories”

  1. DaveD says:

    Like an ongoing cycle, new releases bring some problems and the tech media digs in for something sensational to write. Notifying users of major issues is a good thing. Like Gene has stated, bugs happened. The “new” Apple is like the “old” Apple where new hardware models or new operating system software upgrades can have some “defects” that will be addressed in time.

    I accepted those possibilities and did the software upgrade. My MacBook running Yosemite and iPad running iOS 8 are sending usage and diagnostics info to Apple.

  2. Peter says:

    Basically, you’re saying that everybody has these problems. I’ll agree.

    So, if everybody has these problems and it’s the nature of the game, why should I pay extra for Apple’s supposed quality when it appears that they have the same quality issues as everyone else?

    • @Peter, I don’t say that “everybody” has those problems. I merely said that the number of problems is not unusual for Apple over the years. Sometimes a bit more, sometime a bit less.

      But the claim you are paying “extra” for Apple quality is a little misleading. When you price the hardware, and calculate the worth of the software bundle accurately and fairly, the price of Apple gear is comparable to essentially similar gear from other companies. Apple simply doesn’t play the cheap game. In some cases, Apple gear is cheaper, however. Consider the $2,499 you pay for the iMac 5K. A comparable 5K display from Dell costs just about the same — without a computer inside!


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