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Compromises Have Consequences

I remember back in the early 2000s, when OS X was an infant and the Apple Retail Stores were just starting to take off, I would lament with many of my longtime Mac faithful friends about the decline in reliability of Apple’s products. Many of my friends were convinced that Macs were failing at a much greater rate than they had been “in the good old days,” and that the software was buggier than it ever had been. Of course, Apple was starting to sell many more Macs than it ever had, and it had just replaced the core of all of its software in a relatively short period of time, so it stood to reason that the number of duds coming off the assembly line would increase, and that bugs in the software would become more commonplace as well.

How could Apple possibly continue to grow and succeed without a corresponding decline in quality? This is a universal struggle for all companies, and most end up falling apart eventually because of it.

I bring this up not because I disagree with Marco Arment’s post from last night about the recent decline in Apple’s software quality, which is undeniable. I just think it helps to remember that mass market success and decline in build quality pretty much go hand in hand. And that we’ve been here with Apple before. Many times.

Apple is now hundreds of times larger than it was back when I was complaining with my friends, and the software and hardware, despite not being perfect, aren’t hundreds of times more buggy and unreliable than they were then.

Somehow, Apple always manages to right the ship before the quality assurance issues get completely out of control. Maybe we’re in a particularly bad phase at the moment, and maybe that struggle to keep the quality up is harder than it was in the past, but if history is any indication, it’ll get better.

Almost two years ago, I suggested that Apple would be better off slowing down and taking a year off to fix bugs and enhance already existing features, rather than continue the fevered pace of innovation that it had maintained for so many years. Clearly, Tim Cook ignored my advice. And how could he not? After Jobs’ death, the world consistently questioned Cook’s ability to keep the company in its role as the richest, most powerful, and innovative tech company in the universe. He had a lot to prove. There were expectations that needed to be met, and so he met them.

Unfortunately, meeting those expectations has had consequences.

You can’t have it both ways. You can’t stay way ahead of the curve and not introduce some bugs along the way. This decline in software quality is a side-effect of the current strategy. It’s a compromise Apple has made in order to reassure the general public that the company isn’t “doomed” without Steve Jobs.[1]

The only question now is how does Apple balance the speed of innovation against the need to maintain quality moving forward? As the Apple Watch starts shipping later this year, and the critics of Cook finally quiet down about Apple’s inability to have a hit new product, will Apple shift gears a little? Will the organization realize that it’s out of whack and start to feel the need for a Snow Leopard moment? I think it probably will.

How Apple accomplishes this feat—slowing down the upgrade cycles just a bit, adding more people, introducing fewer new features per release, etc.—is an open question. Regardless, Apple can’t simply stop moving forward. They can’t just take the year off to fix bugs, as I had naively suggested. That’s what I and many old fans of the platform would love to see, but it’s not realistic for the continued success of the business. Apple has no choice but to push ahead.

I’m not apologizing for Apple. I think the leadership has a lot of work to do. But it’s not as simple as “fix everything” or “stop making new stuff until the old stuff works better.” You can’t ignore the fact that Apple has real competitors who aren’t standing still. And you can’t ignore the consequences of spending too much time fixing bugs and denying the always fickle masses the new and shiny bits.

The unfortunate reality is that “Here’s a new version that’s the same as the old version, except now everything works” is a tough sell.

In the meantime, Arment and others are right to point out these glaring software issues, and we’re right to debate them. Apple’s reputation is indeed taking damage, although that may have been unavoidable. Let’s just not get impractical about solutions or pretend that this is an easy thing to solve. And let’s not assume that Apple doesn’t have a sense of the problem.

  1. Ironically, the decline in quality is now going to be used to spark a whole new round of “doom and gloom” stories about Apple. Damned if you do, damned if you don’t.  ↩