Marco Arment sparks debate about Apple software quality

Analysts agree with prominent blogger's premise but not necessarily the solution: Slow down upgrade pace

Credit: Photo by Nrbelex on Flickr

An influential blogger who often writes about Apple stirred the pot Monday with a post that called out the Cupertino, Calif. company for losing its way on software quality.

Marco Arment, formerly the lead developer of Tumblr and perhaps best known as the creator of Instapaper, took Apple to task for what he called "embarrassing bugs and fundamental regressions" in OS X, its Mac operating system. His Monday post caught a lot of peoples' eyes -- Arment has more than 77,000 followers on Twitter and his blog Marco.org is widely read -- and kindled a small fire of controversy as others reacted to his argument.

"I suspect the rapid decline of Apple's software is a sign that marketing is too high a priority at Apple today," Arment wrote Monday. "Having major new releases every year is clearly impossible for the engineering teams to keep up with while maintaining quality."

The only reason Apple software quality is not criticized more often, said Arment, is because Windows' problems are even worse and Linux "is still too much of a pain in the ass for most people.

"We now need to treat Apple's OS and application releases with the same extreme skepticism and trepidation that conservative Windows IT departments employ," Arment asserted.

OS X release schedule too fast?

He pointed a finger at Apple's annual pace of OS X releases, but also implicated iOS, which Apple upgrades each year, too. "We don't need major OS releases every year. We don't need each OS release to have a huge list of new features," said Arment. "We need our computers, phones, and tablets to work well first so we can enjoy new features released at a healthy, gradual, sustainable pace."

Strong words, but especially so coming from someone known as an Apple supporter.

On Tuesday, Arment returned to his blog to express regret. "Instead of what was intended to be constructive criticism of the most influential company in my life, I handed the press more poorly written fuel to ham-fistedly stab Apple with my name and reputation behind it," he said, referring to the scores of news stories and blog posts by others, who he accused of being "sensational opportunists."

But Arment is right, said Van Baker, an analyst with Gartner.

"I think the points he raised were legitimate. We don't need a new [OS X] release every year with hundreds of features," said Baker in an interview. "We need an OS that works well. I would much rather see a thoughtful improvement, limited in scope, that worked extremely well."

Annual operating system upgrades, Baker added, result in "feature creep," where enhancements and additions, including new APIs (application programming interfaces), are only used by small minorities of users or developers. Similar complaints have long been lodged against Microsoft and its Windows OS, Baker pointed out.

"Apple needs to keep up with the pace of change, but it needs to be cautious in following into the trap that Microsoft did at one time," Baker said.

Not everyone agreed with Arment and Baker.

Apple has to keep up

"Hardware is increasingly commoditized, and the value comes from the software," countered Carolina Milanesi, chief of research and head of U.S. business for Kantar WorldPanel Comtech. "In today's software world, you must increase the pace of releases and you have to add more bells and whistles [to attract customers]. You have to accept the world we live in."

Thinking that Apple, or any major operating system maker, could reduce releases is naive, Milanesi added. "Apple's gone from an alternative to Microsoft [and Windows] to being much more mainstream," she said, and that means regularly cranking out upgrades. "The pressure is there because of the competition between the operating systems."

Neither Baker or Milanesi were surprised that Arment's original post sparked broad discussion, although Arment himself seemed taken aback by the attention.

"He's a big name in the Apple community," Milanesi said in explaining the reach of Arment's argument. "But he's been around the block. He knew it would stir things up and fuel all the other stories. And what better time than CES on the part of the people who wrote blogs based on his comments?"

Apple does not attend the International CES, the huge trade show that runs through Friday in Las Vegas. Announcements from CES have dominated the technology news throughout the week.

Apple presents a big target

"People love to throw rocks at the leader, and Apple is not the underdog any longer," added Baker, referring to the numerous follow-up news pieces and blogs that Arment said used his name "and a few of my words, to create drama, fan the flames, and get some [page] views."

Nor is the discussion about Apple software quality new. It's constant: Arment only brought it to the surface, said Baker.

"Apple's a huge company now and they're under increased scrutiny -- in fact, they invite it," Baker said. "They might as well paint a big target on their chest. And people will take shots. Arment threw something out there that had the potential for controversy, and with the typical behavior on the Internet, that got amplified."

Baker was right: Apple frequently gets bad press when widespread bugs irk and frustrate customers. And in the past several months, users have railed at the company over both iOS 8 and OS X Yosemite, Apple's newest mobile and desktop operating systems, respectively.

In September, Apple was forced to pull the first update to iOS 8 after customers reported that their iPhone 6 and 6 Plus smartphones could not connect to a cellular network. Users lashed out, arguing that Apple's quality control had vanished.

Two months later, Apple tried to fix a Wi-Fi problem in Yosemite that had been extensively covered on the firm's support forums. But users said the update had not resolved the issues.

"The reality is that everybody is struggling with the pace of change," said Baker. "And it ain't gonna slow down. You can see the wisdom of doing that, but there's also this clamor for new stuff all the time, and Apple uses [software upgrades] to drive people to buy new products and to cycle through their old ones. Apple doesn't want anyone using an iPhone 3GS."

So, could Apple slow down, as Arment and others wanted? "I just don't know," said Baker.

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