If you use an iPhone, you have probably encountered an annoying glitch or bug on your iPhone.
In the past few months, iPhone owners have run into some real whoppers. For instance: A bug caused iPhones to crash on December 2. Some people couldn’t pick up calls on their iPhone.
A calculator-animation issue caused people to get a wrong answer.
Does this mean that the quality of Apple software is slipping, as experts and armchair analysts have been debating for the past year? It is difficult to tell – software always has bugs, and as Apple sells more iPhones, it increases the pool of people who will encounter any given glitch.
The biggest sign that this is an issue comes from Apple itself, as it upends its traditional software release strategy.
This year, when Apple releases the next version of iOS, it is unlikely to have a major redesign of the home screen or a big killer new feature, as previous versions of iOS have brought. The update is instead expected to focus on bug fixes, stability, and getting things right, according to reports from Bloomberg and Axios.
Instead, when the next iOS comes out – probably in beta this summer, with a global roll-out in autumn – it will probably be similar to your current iPhone experience, only faster, more stable and more reliable.
Isn’t that what everyone wants?
Marching to a drum
The decision to focus on bug fixes reveals a huge change in the way Apple develops software in the future.
One thing that makes Apple special among big tech companies, according to people who have worked there, is the importance of the hardware release schedule across the company. Hardware needs to be designed, programmed, built and shipped by a certain date, and you can’t go back and fix it after it is done.
So the whole company keeps its eyes on the product release schedule. Some compare it to an army marching: everyone moves forward in lockstep, with whole swathes of the company working towards a common goal.
It trickles down to software as well. In recent years Apple has launched one big new version of iOS alongside the new iPhone. Those new releases come with “tentpole” features – new additions to iOS that the company uses to market the iPhone itself. Management assigns those “tentpoles” to a software group, who toil day and night to deliver the features by the phone’s release date.
So the fact that Apple is taking a longer, less deadline-driven view to “tentpole” features is a big change. According to Bloomberg, engineering managers now have the authority to push back at management if they feel a feature can’t be properly implemented in time.
“Instead of keeping engineers on a relentless annual schedule and cramming features into a single update, Apple will start focusing on the next two years of updates for its iPhone and iPad operating system, according to people familiar with the change. The company will continue to update its software annually, but internally engineers will have more discretion to push back features that aren’t as polished to the following year.”
The change suggests that Apple now realises that the vast majority of iPhone users are not necessarily the technology super-experts, as they might have been in the early days of the iPhone or iPad.
Instead, iPhone owners regularly use the devices as their main computer, day-in and day-out. Reliability is much more important for them than a software update that may add a feature their older phones don’t even support like the lip-synching Animoji, currently an iPhone X exclusive. That is especially true if those software updates introduce the possibility of new bugs or glitches that complicate their experience.
Ultimately, this change is good news for any iPhone owner. Innovation at Apple will not stop – it still needs to sell new phones every year – but it suggests that Apple won’t be pushing out half-baked features just to make old iPhones feel new.
It is probably also good news for software engineers at Apple, who may get to take a break now and then from the relentless marching forward of the army. Still, some all-nighters are probably yet in their future.
In many ways, the shift reported by Bloomberg and Axios show that Apple understands that the iPhone is no longer a young product. Ten years-plus, it is fully mature.
And mature products don’t necessarily need to change every year for relatively arbitrary reasons.
This line of thinking was highlighted by Steven Sinofsky, a former Microsoft executive and current Andreessen Horowitz board partner, who argued in a series of tweets on Monday that Apple’s bugs aren’t necessarily more common than they were in the past. He says, the reported change to its software focus isn’t a reaction to outside criticism – it’s simply what any big tech company needs to do after a few years of building out its core product.
In other words, Sinofsky argues, what is happening at Apple is a natural reaction to the balance a giant project like iOS needs.
11/ What is lost in all of this recent discussion is the nuance between features, schedule, and quality. It is like having a discussion with a financial advisor over income, risk, and growth. You don’t just show up and say you want all three and get a “sure”.— ♂️Steven Sinofsky ॐ (@stevesi) February 12, 2018
And the “buggy feeling” is because hundreds of millions of people use iPhones for hours each day. “What is different is that at scale a bug that happens to 0.01 per cent of people is a lot of people,” he tweeted. “A stadium full or more.”
29/ The more a product is used the more hyper-sensitive people get to how it works. The human brain is extraordinary in how it recognizes even the slightest changes in responsiveness, performance, and sequencing of operations.— ♂️Steven Sinofsky ॐ (@stevesi) February 12, 2018
His take on it? Don’t panic: Apple knows what it is doing, and whatever change to its development process is going on will strengthen the company in the long run.
32/ So Apple will just renew the engineering process. It means thinking about how risk is analyzed, how schedules are constructed, how priorities are set. This is literally what it means to run a project and what we are all paying them to do.— ♂️Steven Sinofsky ॐ (@stevesi) February 12, 2018
31/ But what happens to a team as complexity evolves is simply the challenge of coordination and more importantly consistency or leveling of decisions across a complex system. This is particularly acute if the bulk of the team has only known the previous few years of success.— ♂️Steven Sinofsky ॐ (@stevesi) February 12, 2018
END/ So to me on Apple, even as an outsider, I feel confident saying that this isn’t reactionary/crisis or a response to externalities. Importantly it isn’t a massive pivot/“student body left”. It’s a methodical and predictable evolution of an extremely robust and proven system.— ♂️Steven Sinofsky ॐ (@stevesi) February 12, 2018
This is not a move made out of desperation. Apple is deciding to head off a process that had stopped producing the desired output. A grand rethinking of how it is going to produce software for iPhones is welcome news for all Apple users, especially those who value reliability and consistency.
The next iPhone update may not have super-Animoji. But if it crashes less, lots of people should be happy.