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So We Only Notice Bugs in Apple Software More Often These Days?

Should you believe corporate spin over personal opinions or experiences? Well, in a recent interview with Apple executives Eddy Cue and Craig Federighi, as carried on a podcast from John Gruber, they were asked about Apple software quality. The conventional wisdom has it that software quality has declined, that new operating system releases are riddled with bugs, and that it often takes several maintenance updates to set things right.

However, the Apple duo mounted a vigorous defense, claiming that they know that software quality is actually better, but because there are more people using Apple gear these days, bugs are given far more prominence. In other words, it’s not that there are more software defects, but that more people are talking about them. So it seems worse than it really is.

Or at least that’s what they say.

This is one of the claims that is really impossible to prove objectively. Apple holds the cards, the data that demonstrates how many serious bugs exist and the priority for fixing those bugs. For clear competitive reasons, Apple wouldn’t like other companies to know, yet merely using Apple gear in a variety of settings with the latest OS installations would or should reveal the worst problems.

So perhaps what they said is true and we can all relax with the knowledge that Apple is on the case. I mean, it’s not as if they’ll admit that, yes, we know that we can do a better job of making sure OS releases are as reliable as possible before release. That will never happen, although Apple will sometimes admit to a serious problem, particularly if it impacts a large number of users.

In saying that, impressions mean a lot. So if each bug is telegraphed in importance because of the sheer number of users of Apple gear, it puts more pressure on the company to get more things right, not just stay the course or do a little bit better.

To be fair, I’m not necessarily saying that Cue and Federighi are lying about the state of Apple software quality. It’s possible they are spinning it as fewer serious bugs, or just toeing the company line as good soldiers. It’s about sales and marketing, the assurance that Apple products are the most reliable on the planet, and so long as you report the problems you encounter, the’ll get to them — eventually.

But it’s clear to me that Apple has a problem of perception. Customers do believe software quality has declined, and they might list specific areas where things that should have been fixed aren’t being fixed. It’s not about apps needing updates to support new operating system features. Indeed, the venerable Open/Save dialog box enhancer, Default Folder X, had to be completely rewritten to be made compatible with OS X El Capitan due to significant changes that Apple made to enhance security. That update was released a few weeks back, and it’s not the only app that needed serious work.

However, it’s clear that El Capitan isn’t getting the love over at the Mac App Store. More than four months after release — a long time in the software game —  OS 10.11 still only earns a three-star rating. While many report smooth upgrade experiences — and mine were mostly without incident — others report all sorts of problems. Of course, you can’t take individual reviews as demonstrating a trend, but when lots of people are unhappy about slower performance, spinning beachballs and various glitches of one sort or another, you wonder if Apple reads those reviews and makes an effort to follow up.

True, people with problems are more apt to complain than those for whom an OS upgrade is smooth. So reviews will tend to be weighted towards negative reactions.

What’s important is whether there are specific trends towards certain problems, or whether they are just all over the place, or too general to isolate specific issues. One review called it “the worst update from Apple in forever.” In what respect?

Now over the years, Apple has made more than its share of big mistakes. I remember one or two releases back in the 1990s where the OS was so unstable I could barely work for more than an hour or two before some sort of system error appeared, or apps started to crash frequently.

In the early days of OS X, actually being productive was difficult because it was rough, unfinished. The first releases didn’t even support hardware acceleration for moving document windows around, so it got pretty ragged except on the fastest Macs. But once OS X reached a more advanced state of development, say by OS 10.3 or OS 10.4, it all came into its own.

I have never had to revert to an older OS release because the new one was too buggy, except for a few prerelease versions. Other than a rare Safari crash involving a specific site, I don’t see serious problems with El Capitan. Well, except for one thing. Since the earliest betas, I’ve noticed random freezes in Mail. It happens every day or so, where it stops dead in its tracks for 30 seconds or so before the situation clears up. While I had heard that the forthcoming OS 10.11.4 update might have fixed the problem, that doesn’t appear to be true.

Is it serious enough for Apple to give it priority? Does it only impact people with huge mailboxes and multiple accounts? Good question. If you want to know if the problem has been reported, I can tell you it has been. But I suppose Apple could still say that OS quality is better nowadays and still tolerate a bug of this sort since nobody is losing data and the inconvenience is minimal.