The spotlight in tech circles has been aimed at Apple's software bugs after star developer Marco Arment made the case that marketing not quality is driving the release cycle.
Arment, co-founder of Tumblr and creator of Instapaper, made the case that Apple has lost its "functional high ground." The gist of Arment's argument is that Apple's hardware shines, but software quality has nosedived. It's so bad that Apple fans can't mock Windows users anymore because Apple's OS needs to be treated with the "same extreme skepticism and trepidation that conservative Windows IT departments employ."
Now Arment's complaints are largely anecdotal and if you hunt around enough you can certainly find plenty of Apple software complaints. Arment's theory is that Apple's software still does well because Windows is still worse and desktop Linux is too complicated.
It's almost impossible to debate Arment's points since there's no data involved. Steven Sinofsky, former leader of Windows at Microsoft, noted on Twitter that it's tough to debate the Apple software quality points since it's all anecdotal.
But there is one point worth debating in Arment's take: How much blame marketing should get? Arment wrote:
I suspect the rapid decline of Apple's software is a sign that marketing is too high a priority at Apple today: having major new releases every year is clearly impossible for the engineering teams to keep up with while maintaining quality. Maybe it's an engineering problem, but I suspect not -- I doubt that any cohesive engineering team could keep up with these demands and maintain significantly higher quality.
The problem seems to be quite simple: they're doing too much, with unrealistic deadlines.
Arment then added that there doesn't need to be a major OS release every year. Indeed, there doesn't have to be a major release ever. The future of software is iterative. Even Microsoft Windows is headed in this direction.
But before we throw Apple marketing chief Phil Schiller under a software quality bus, it's worth pondering other reasons why software quality may be taking a hit. Marketing is a priority at every technology company. In fact, marketing is driving the bus at almost every enterprise across most industries. So before we blame marketing for Apple's alleged software issues, let's examine a few more obvious answers.
- Engineering at scale is hard. Arment's premise is that there can't be an engineering problem really because Apple gets engineering. Guess what? Apple doesn't have the engineering market cornered. In some areas the company shines, but it can't be good at everything. Android can also be buggy. No one will argue Google doesn't get engineering. Facebook has its moments too. So does Microsoft. And Amazon. The biggest difference with Apple software today is that there are more eyes on it. It's quite the challenge to iterate quickly, release on time and keep everyone happy. The simplest answer here is that there is an engineering problem with Apple's software. Probably process issues too. Welcome to the club guys.
- It's a cloud world and Apple isn't a cloud company. The idea that Apple is too aggressive with releases is laughable if you cover cloud companies. Software as a service giants have at least two releases a year. There's a cadence with just enough customization for customers to wade into the innovation pool at their own pace. Apple has been wading into the cloud, but it's certainly not a native. Google is services. Amazon is services. Microsoft is becoming services. Apple is a hardware/software integration outfit and it's quite possible that its release schedule revolves around old world thinking. Once a year OS updates isn't asking too much in the cloud.
- Consumer expectations. Android can be buggy as hell yet has a ton of share. Ditto for Windows. Consumers will tolerate yielding some functional high ground. Here's where marketing at Apple falls over. Apple is marketed as the most pain free user experience in the history of technology. Anything short of that will lead to complaints.
- Apple has pressure to innovate and grow. Let's say Arment is handed the software quality control reins at Apple. What's he going to show off at WWDC? Hey guys, the code isn't ready so we're not going to show you this feature? Just wait til next year. We'll pass on an iPhone OS update for 2015. Apple has to show us something. It has a zillion shareholders, a huge customer base and a chip on its shoulder to show it can innovate without Steve Jobs. Those pressures exist at every technology company. When you really think about it Apple is pretty restrained with its product cycle. It could treat its products like big betas just because it knows that Apple fans would buy the first few million units of anything.
Regarding that pressure to grow. Here's a look at what Wall Street is expecting from Apple in annual revenue.
What Apple's base of developers needs to do is take Arment's argument to heart, but blaming marketing is a cop out and simply too easy. There are engineering issues to be sure. The question is how Apple balances the aforementioned pressures above to deliver a product cadence that keeps the innovation wave moving. Moving slower just isn't going to be an option.