The iOS refresh has been an annual event since the beginning. You can depend on learning about the next version a WWDC keynote and now, with an active public beta program, access to the new iOS within a month or so thereafter. While Apple had settled on longer cycles for the operating system formerly known as OS X, it became annual in 2011 with Lion, and free beginning in 2013 with Mavericks and mostly in sync with iOS releases.
While it’s true that Google’s Android also receives annual updates, it doesn’t matter so much. It usually takes a year or two for any decent number of users to receive that update, and usually it involves buying new gear with the older system. Also, Apple tends to add more goodies than Google, which, some suggest, may create the climate for more problems. So it usually takes a few updates for most things to settle down.
In saying that, Google, and Microsoft for that matter, have been known to release buggy updates too. Windows 10, which Microsoft has spent nearly a year forcing on PC users, sometimes uninvited, was shaky out of the starting gate and received frequent updates. Last I checked, it was in pretty decent shape as far as a Windows OS goes, but nothing excuses Microsoft’s shady practice of pushing unwanted background downloads, and launching unexpected installers in the middle of someone’s workday. No wonder the authorities are looking into such questionable practices.
When it comes to Apple, the obvious question is whether the company is doing too much. Right now, four operating system upgrades — macOS Sierra, iOS 10, watchOS 3 and tvOS 10 — are arriving this fall. Google has Android and Chrome OS, Microsoft has Windows 10 for desktop, 2-in-1 and mobile. But all based on the same code.
So is Apple taking on too much too quickly? While I suppose a new iOS might fuel sales of the next iPhone, how many people buy new Macs because of annual macOS upgrades?
I suppose recent updates make sense for watchOS, since it’s a new platform with lots of room to grow, and tvOS is also in the early stages, even though the Apple TV is in its fourth generation.
To some, however, it may seem that Apple might be a little more deliberate in upgrading the OS on Macs and iOS gear. Take a little time to make sure that all the pieces are in place with new features, and that they are less flaky by release time. Sure, Apple has public betas for these two, and one hopes that the feedback is making them more robust. But I can’t help feeling that the program is more about product marketing than about improved Q&A.
It’s not that the last couple of iOS and Mac upgrades have been more stable as the result of public betas. They still arrive with the traditional point-zero defects that require several months to straighten out. In one notorious case, I can almost believe that Apple’s Mac development team was asleep at the wheel when Yosemite was released in 2014. The original and most bug fix updates contained serious Wi-Fi bugs that resulted in inconsistent connectivity and performance. It was such an obvious problem that it’s hard to believe it went unnoticed during the testing cycle. And what about all those public beta testers who go online via Wi-Fi and not a hard-wired Ethernet connection? How many of them dutifully submitted feedback about their problems?
Why were they ignored?
Finally, Apple ditched a new network resource and replaced it with an old network resource, and the problem apparently went away, months after Yosemite was first released.
Things fared better with El Capitan. Other than performance issues on older gear, of course. And don’t forget that Mail stalling bug I’ve described a few dozen times in these columns. But it still earns no more than a three-star rating at the App Store. All right, I suppose that might be due to the fact that people without problems are less apt to write reviews than those who encounter trouble. I wouldn’t care to make assumptions, but perhaps it might earn another star if the negative leanings were considered. But Apple is not going to do that — it will just post the numbers unaltered.
So while it may be a good idea for Apple to slow down, that’s not going to happen. Maybe some day, when the Apple Watch and Apple TV have matured. But iOS has been around since 2007, and it’s in pretty decent shape, so it’s not likely that Apple will change release schedules anytime soon. Even if a new macOS doesn’t necessarily accompany new models, the pattern has been established, and I suppose people expect to see these annual exercises.
Or maybe Apple should be throwing more money and people at the problem. But that is no guarantee of success. Microsoft has far larger programming teams, and it doesn’t seem as if things are more efficient over there. Apple has been successful with smaller groups of developers, and even if the results aren’t perfect, that may just be par for the course right now. Mac operating systems were always flaky at the starting gate even when major upgrades arrived several years apart.
So as much as some might hope that Apple will slow down, I expect things will move in the other direction.