On iOS Quality

My mom loved her iPad 2. She got it a little more than 3 years ago. It’s been with her and my dad all over Europe. She’s used it with her camera to import photos. She does shopping on it, looks up directions in maps, browses Craigslist.

In November I got a text from her. She was strongly thinking of getting rid of the iPad and buying an Android tablet. She’d made a mistake and had upgraded to iOS 8. Desperate, she asked if there was a way to undo the upgrade. Otherwise, the iPad had to go, and it’s replacement wouldn’t be an Apple product. She was furious at Apple, wondering why Apple did this to her iPad.

My mom is not a fair-weather friend to Apple. She’s has been an Apple user from the beginning. By “beginning” I mean she-owned-a-Mac-512ke beginning. She worked as a desktop publisher, and she had the Mac/Pagemaker/Laserprinter setup. We, as a family, stuck with Apple through the 90s, which was a horrible time for Apple quality. We had a Power Mac 6500 that would randomly corrupt it’s own hard disk. I learned the joys of using Extension Manager to troubleshoot startup from her. In the 2000s she had an iMac G5 that went through at least a few power supply replacements. (Her Intel iMac has been solid.) Throughout all of this, never once had she ever said to me that she was going to buy anything but Apple products. This was a big deal.

She came into town a few weeks later, and brought her iPad along with for me to look at. It took a good second or two for it to respond to any taps, making the experience frustrating and the keyboard unusable. Applications would constantly crash. I couldn’t figure out why. I hooked it up to Instruments, and everything seemed normal. Resetting the device settings didn’t help, and I wasn’t brave enough to actually wipe the device entirely, especially when the iPad was synced to her home iMac. I didn’t know what to do with it besides tell her to wait for an update to fix it. It didn’t feel good to tell her that until some undetermined time in the future, her iPad, which had become such a big part of her life, was going to be only slightly more useful than a doorstop.

This is just one anecdote, but it’s not the only issue I’ve seen with Apple software quality. On my 6 Plus, when I rotate my device while I’m in Safari, it frequently crashes. I don’t know why. I’ve swapped for a new device, I’ve totally reset and reinstalled everything from scratch. When iOS 7 first shipped, my phone and the phones of many others I knew would randomly reboot constantly. My iPad 3, which is admittedly a more obscure device, has been slow since the iOS 8 update as well. And while I’m keeping this list iOS specific, there is a whole host of OS X issues as well.

Are things worse than they always have been? I don’t know. But I think the way we’ve sold iOS to users, our friends, and our families have changed how some look at these bugs.


Apple has sold iOS devices as deeply personal devices. They store your photos. They connect your phone calls and let you chat with your friends. They help manage your schedule and remind you of meetings. They check your email for you. An iPhone can track what you eat and how many calories you’ve burned. And all these functions become integral to your day. If my iOS device stops receiving email reliably, stops reminding me about meetings, dumps all my exercise data for the last week, or drops my phone calls halfway through after an update, that’s not a small deal. That’s an integral component of my life missing. And it’s integral to my life because Apple sold me on making iOS an integral component to my life.

I think sometimes developers tend to trivialize these issues. It’s easy to say that customers should know better than to upgrade, even while Apple is spawning popups on everyone’s devices telling them to upgrade. It’s also easy to write off some big issues as just a minor defect in a module, a refactor that isn’t didn’t quite turn out the way everyone had hoped, or maybe there was some memory leak that is still being investigated. But when these issues get released, they turn into millions of users not being able to get very important work done on their iPad, their iPhone, or their Mac. And users are increasingly becoming more and more reliant on their iOS devices working reliably.

Do I worry about the continued success of iOS in the face of this? Sure. I want Apple to succeed, but let’s be realistic here. There are plenty of players in the mobile market who had a quality decline, had the hubris to believe that they couldn’t be dislodged, and are now no longer are a force in mobile. The mobile market is fluid. Short term? I don’t think Apple is going anywhere. But long term, if Apple doesn’t get a handle on quality control, I don’t see how they’re going to continue being competitive. Sure, everyone has their own problems, but I can rotate the web browser on my Nexus phone without it crashing.

Around two months after iOS 8 made my mom’s iPad totally unusable, iOS 8.1.1 shipped with “Increased stability and performance improvements for iPad 2 and iPhone 4S.” It now works well enough to use again, but it’s still a step down from how it was before iOS 8 came along. I half heartedly tell her she might want to think about a new one soon, but usually feel bad asking her to replace a tablet that’s barely three years old. After all, it was working just fine until she hit that update button.