Apple, iOS, and Leading by Example

When the App Store launched in 2008, I started to worry about where the newly-christened iPhone OS (which would later be renamed iOS) was headed. While I was excited about the prospect of third-party native software on the iPhone, I was concerned about where iOS might eventually find itself in the not-too-distant future. It was the first move toward becoming a regular-old operating system. Given the history of Windows and Mac OS, that carries certain implications. Layers of cruft. Useless features. Bloat. Poor software. Bad stewardship.

Flash forward five years, and I think we’ve found ourselves faced with a mobile operating system that exhibits all of those problems and more.

The App Store has become a mess of black-hat SEO techniques, rip-offs, cons, and poorly architected applications that show a total disregard for common QA practices. It has all of these things despite being a much-maligned walled garden, and it’s been this way for a long time now. The built-in search doesn’t work well despite being reworked several times (including once using technology that was snapped up via the acquisition of a company that specialized in searching the App Store). New app releases can take hours to propagate through the store for seemingly no reason whatsoever. Apple seems content to let the App Store fester.

Apple’s own software has been bug-ridden for some time. iOS 7 was–and remains–full of issues. Even seemingly basic applications like Reminders fail routinely for people. Duplicate contacts scattered across devices. Voice Memos that randomly refuse to play.

iCloud continues to be unreliable despite being almost three years old, which has led many third-party developers to build their own completely unreliable sync services. iCloud file storage remains a black box of data that users can’t see into. Apple still eschews iterative development and ships updates to its web services on (what appears to be) a yearly basis, meaning any issues users face will be present until the next big reveal.

iCloud storage plans are expensive even by Apple’s standards and top out at 50 GB despite the largest iOS device carrying 128 GB of storage, which means some users with a full device can’t use iCloud Backup despite paying a premium for the highest tier of storage. People still don’t understand that Photo Stream can and will quietly delete your photos based on arbitrary limits. Data loss is common in both cases.

iOS hasn’t grown in a meaningful way over the last couple of years. Yes, it’s gotten better for developers, and lots of nifty (but currently useless) things like iBeacons and peer-to-peer networking were added, but users haven’t gained much more than a pretty interface that makes buttons hard to discern. Apps still can’t share data with each other. AirDrop on iOS can’t talk to AirDrop on a Mac, which is baffling.

The iPhone and iPad are both beautiful examples of industrial design, though. I’m sure the next versions will be every bit as nice. But good hardware with bad software still leads to a half-assed product. Other hardware makers are getting better at industrial design. Good hardware is no longer enough to separate iOS devices from the rest of the market.

But the thing about the rest of the market is that all of it is objectively worse than iOS. Android has privacy issues that are too numerous to count. Windows Phone remains a confused OS with a poor selection of third-party software.

Unreliable software and services. Complacency. Privacy concerns. Bad stewardship. Confusing user experiences.

The best of the best is, at the moment, face-planting in grand fashion. iOS’s platform issues are so entrenched that driving them back could take years. And the alternatives to iOS are non-starters to those who care about a solid ecosystem and some semblance of privacy.

To me, the early promise of mobile computing has been broken. The iPhone took off like a rocket and replaced everything from the calculator on your desk to the flashlight in your closet. And then it got weird. And confusing. Simple things that technology was supposed to make easy (e.g., managing your to-dos) became a game of Russian Roulette with a server farm in North Carolina. That’s not how things were supposed to go.

I’ve personally dealt with this by slowly backing away from using computers to do important things. Not just mobile devices, but computers in general. The trust I had in my devices has eroded slowly over the last seven years. Despite wanting to be paperless, I’ve found myself turning to notebooks, post-its, and analog tools like whiteboards that won’t mysteriously go missing in the night because someone tripped over a power cord halfway around the world.

It saddens me because of the potential of these devices. Our phones and tablets are powerful and capable of so much, but they continue to fail us because of bad software. It’s easy to blame third-party developers, but I think it makes more sense to blame Apple for doing a poor job of shepherding the platform along.

They set the standard by which iOS software should be measured, and they control the primary mechanism of distribution. If Apple ships bad software, why should other iOS developers care to do better? And if the App Store encourages bargain basement pricing, scammy in-app purchases, and generally deceptive marketing practices just to make your app visible via the built-in search, why should we blame developers for doing what’s required to turn a profit? Bad begets bad.

Rumored iOS features used to excite me; now they frustrate me because they point to Apple taking on still more responsibilities. As a developer for and a user of Apple’s products, I hope they’ll reign in their focus soon. We don’t need a new TV or a wearable device. We need an operating system and an App Store and web services that are reliable enough to restore our trust in the platform. We need Apple to set a better example.