Apple’s App Problem: What It Needs to Fix on iOS and OS X

Spencer Platt/Getty Images

Spencer Platt/Getty Images

2016 is expected to be a big year for Apple, with products like a second-generation Apple Watch, the iPhone 7, and new Macs rumored to be on the way. But software plays just as big a part as hardware in Apple’s world, and Apple is expected to add new features to the next versions of platforms like iOS, OS X, and watchOS. But perhaps more importantly, 2016 may be the year when Apple finally fixes its apps.

As Walt Mossberg reports for The Verge, it’s become noticeable over the past few years that the quality of Apple’s apps for the iPhone and for the Mac is degrading. While Mossberg finds that Apple’s core apps “work well enough, sometimes delightfully well,” the number of exceptions is increasing. Which is a disappointing state of affairs for fans and critics alike who hold Apple to the high standard promised by one of Steve Jobs’s favorite phrases, “It just works!”

Apple’s major advantage over its competitors — an advantage that Google may seek to replicate with the next in its line of “pure Android” Nexus smartphones — is that it develops the software and hardware for its products together. Mossberg notes that “if the software isn’t excellent, it does the superlative hardware a disservice.” In recent years, Mossberg and others have noticed apps like Mail, Photos, iTunes, and iCloud failing to meet Apple’s standards, sometimes in big ways and sometimes only in small ways.

He reports that iTunes, for instance, is bloated, complex, and sluggish — a situation that’s only gotten worse since Apple integrated the new Apple Music streaming service. The app is slow and unwieldy on Mac, and Mossberg recommends that Apple finally take the plunge and disassemble iTunes on OS X, in much the same way that it did on iOS, where iTunes is just a store and there are separate playback apps for each type of content (music, videos, and podcasts).

The Mail apps for both iOS and OS X have also become slow and unreliable, particularly if you’re one of the billion people using Gmail. Mail is slow at sending and receiving Gmail messages, Search misses results, and Apple has so far declined to push Mail into the territory of enabling users to do message triage or equipping the app with tools to automatically sort various kinds of messages — territory that’s been well-charted by other iOS and even OS mail apps.

Photos got a major upgrade on OS X last year, when Apple retired iPhoto and replaced it with Photos. The new version is much cleaner and significantly faster than the old version, but Mossberg notes that the accompanying (but optional) iCloud Photo Library “tarnishes the improved experience.” While iCloud Photo Library works well on iOS devices, it’s slow on desktop, returns erratic search results, and doesn’t always properly sync shared iCloud libraries.

Finally, what Mossberg characterizes as Apple’s most annoying and consequential software weakness is found in iCloud. Some types of data sync reliably, while others sync only intermittently, and even basic functions like cloud backup on iOS are prone to failure. Apple prides itself on creating software that can work across devices, but the pattern of cloud issues leaves users trying to troubleshoot small aggravations and minor errors that, over time, erode the quality of the experience of using Apple hardware.

Mossberg isn’t the only one to notice, and to be disappointed by, an apparent drop in Apple’s software quality. Rene Ritchie reports for iMore that notable tech figures ranging from Marco Arment to John Gruber have noted that the fall of software quality at Apple seems to contrast with the continued excellence of its hardware.

Ritchie points out that “an unending stream of complaints about broken software, services, and promises” seems to intensify during periods when Apple is working to bring new technology to market, and conversely to dwindle when Apple is primarily iterating on existing technologies. “The difference now,” Ritchie posits, “is that Apple is doing so many things so quickly that cycle is stretched thin.”

The problem is further exacerbated by Apple’s choice to task a few of its apps with “impossible jobs.” (Think of the way iTunes has to support millions of Window users and sync millions of legacy iPods, or the process by which Music also came to support old libraries, new streaming services, radio stations, social networks, and more.)

Ritchie thinks that because many of the changes that Apple has made with iOS were difficult to ship on the yearly update schedule, the company should consider “stopping the impossible.” Letting go of legacy Windows and iPod support, for instance, would free up Apple’s development teams to take iTunes to the cloud, and while some customers would feel abandoned, such choices would free Apple to move its platforms forward, with software that’s properly maintained and continually improving.

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