The Apple Software Defect Freakout

December 20th, 2017

Apple can’t get a break. Software glitches that are not terribly unusual on other computing platforms garner amazing amounts of publicity when it happens to an iPhone or a Mac. That the average price of Apple gear is higher — even though usually competitive — means they have to answer, I suppose, to a higher authority.

Most recently, Apple had to rush out a fix to address a root bug in macOS High Sierra, which allowed you to gain root privileges on a Mac — meaning you’d have full control of your computer without restriction — without a password. Clearly a foolish error, Apple fixed within hours after the flaw was revealed to the public.

That should have been the end of it, until it turned out that, if you installed the macOS 10.3.1 update after running that fix, the bug would return.

As a practical matter, there are always security flaws that will allow someone with access to a computer to take it over, more or less. The root bug didn’t come into play unless someone had physical access to your Mac. It wouldn’t just happen.

Still, there are just so many ways you can attack this boneheaded move. Mistakes happen, but was this one sufficient to condemn Apple forever? What about all the other bugs that have appeared in previous macOS and iOS updates. Three years ago, an iOS 8.0.1 update had the side effect of partially bricking newer iPhones. That’s far worse than granting hackers easy access, because it meant no access.

Even though Apple pulled that update within less than an hour, and released a fixed version, 8.0.2, the very next day, the affair got plenty of coverage from cable news talking heads. The affected iPhones could be restored, and would soon be back to normal, but it was still a big inconvenience. I suspect Apple’s support lines were clogged for days.

Again, this all happened in 2014, and there are other software and hardware flaws over that years that were troublesome to greater or lesser degrees. I still remember buying a Power Macintosh 8100 in 1994, because the experience was memorable, but not in a pleasant way.

Adding RAM was a treacherous process, which required you to physically remove the logic board after disconnecting some delicate wiring harnesses. In retrospect, the process was actually easier than pulling one of today’s iMacs apart. But once reassembled, it was crash city because of a seriously buggy Mac OS update. Sure, that didn’t happen under the watch of Steve Jobs or Tim Cook, but it illustrates something long-time Apple customers know full well. The products are pretty reliable and long lasting, but they are far from free of glitches.

Despite this clear and obvious fact, some of Apple critics seem to think that the High Sierra bug, and some particularly irritating ones with iOS 11 that seemed near as foolish, represent a serious decline in the quality of Apple’s software.

It’s easy to claim that they are doing too many things, releasing too many products — after a period in which people claimed they released too few — and need to spend more time and resources making sure that all or most of the serous bugs are fixed before release.

There’s certainly plenty on Apple’s plate, with four OS platforms — iOS, macOS, watchOS and tvOS — to actively support, not to mention amazingly sophisticated hardware.

Even if the number of bugs per product is the same or less — something Apple has claimed from time to time — once you add them up, it means there’s more to complain about. Having a larger customer base means that every one of those bugs impacts more people.

So I can understand why some tech pundits will complain about a rapid decline in the quality of Apple’s products, even if serious bugs are usually fixed quickly. If you buy a flawed gadget, one that clearly doesn’t work or work properly due to a hardware defect, Apple will replace it without question. They are known to establish extended repair programs to fix hardware defects even a few years after the product goes out of production and warranties have expired.

How can that happen if Apple’s gear has always been perfect?

While Apple should be justifiably embarrassed when stupid mistakes are made, those mistakes will continue to occur until robots take over the entire development, testing and manufacturing process. Or maybe not even then. After all, how can robots be perfect if they are created by humans?

But whenever you find something with an Apple label on it to complain about, consider the competition and how often bugs appear on those products. Consider Windows patches that cause boot loops — repeated booting without end – or the complete failure to start. Consider smartphones with biometrics, such as facial recognition and iris sensors, that can be easily defeated with digital photos.

Sure, Apple’s Face ID and Touch ID are not perfect, and there are elaborate methods to defeat them, but they deliver a high degree of security for most users. The biometric flaws I mentioned in the previous paragraph, which impact a Samsung Galaxy S8 and Galaxy Note 8, don’t seem to stop some reviewers from praising them to the skies. Imagine if you could defeat an iPhone’s biometrics as easily. You’d never hear the end of it.

Now since Apple has never been perfect, it’s hard to claim that there are sudden declines in quality control. One surely hopes that Apple learns from its mistakes and, as with the rest of us, strives to do better the next time.

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One Response to “The Apple Software Defect Freakout”

  1. DaveD says:

    Good balance of facts and opinions.

    “Now since Apple has never been perfect, it’s hard to claim that there are sudden declines in quality control. One surely hopes that Apple learns from its mistakes and, as with the rest of us, strives to do better the next time.”

    There were software bugs in the early Mac OS X era, I decided to wait for the third update before upgrading. That changed with OS X Mavericks and upgraded on day one. It was a very good experience that unfortunately was not repeatable with OS X Yosemite.

    My most current Mac is running El Capitan which will be upgraded to Sierra (not High Sierra) sometime next year. While Sierra has no new features that I want, the upgrade would keep the Mac current with security updates and running the latest web browsers.

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