Apple of My Eye

Sometimes bad things happen to good software.

It is an interesting time to be a customer of Apple computers, devices, and software. The hardware is gorgeous and efficient. The iOS 8 and Mac OS X “Yosemite” operating systems are powerful. Many aspects of the new software interfaces are delightful. I like where things are going with cloud-based services and the vision of seamless syncing among devices. But the transition to this new era of Apple software design is not without its growing pains.

I’ve been surprised by the number of bugs and inconsistencies I’ve encountered while using my Apple gear on the aforementioned operating systems. As an example, there was a period of a few weeks where I could not launch the 1Password iPhone app without it crashing and bringing down the entire iPhone with it. Sandboxing, anyone?

On the Mac, I’ve started to see more messages like this, apropos of nothing:

BBEdit damaged

and:

Handoff

But it’s not only the productivity infringements that make me wince, it’s the oversight of dozens of little user interface details—the finessing of which is usually squarely in Apple’s wheelhouse. Yosemite feels unfinished. Perhaps it was rushed to market to coincide with a product launch. Or perhaps it was not rigorously tested. Here’s an example:

Search?

think the label next to the form field is supposed to say “Search.” Granted, I have enabled the “increase contrast” and “reduce transparency” settings in System Preferences → Accessibility, because my aging eyes prefer a little more contrast. (Don’t even get me started about the invisible text that appears at the bottom of the log in screen after a few moments—I can’t read it.) Yes, I use a dark wallpaper pattern. These legitimate choices should not relegate one to third-class citizenship in the Mac ecosystem. Another example:

iCloud problem

In this case I knew what the problem was—I had just enabled two-step authentication on my iCloud account, and needed to update my password in System Preferences. No big deal. What struck me about this dialog was the odd “choice” of color contrast for the “iCloud Preferences” button. Black on navy blue? Completely unconsidered.

Another punishment for choosing to “reduce transparency” is that you get un-masked rounded corners on your system volume indicator:

Black corners

That looks about as intentional as a transparent GIF displayed over a wrong-colored background.

Is this stuff mission-critical? Of course not. Am I being picky? For the sake of argument, yes. I am certainly not trying to belittle the hard-working designers’ and engineers’ efforts or competence. I too develop software of a sort (websites), and I know first-hand that it’s almost impossible to make everything perfect by some predetermined launch date.

Furthermore, building things and testing them are different functions, and it’s arguably as much a tester’s role to catch things as an engineer’s. In his insightful piece The QA Mindset, Rands touches on something I hadn’t thought about before, which is the possibility that the modern “download” method for software distribution may be partly to blame:

In a pre-Internet world, one of the key reasons for a well-defined quality assurance team was the cost of distribution. When you released software, it required producing a pretty shrink-wrapped box full of disks and documentation. This was expensive to build and ship. More importantly, the infrequent yearly release of this shiny box was the sole yearly opportunity to get your software in front of your customers. It could be upwards of a year before you had a chance to right your buggy wrongs.

This makes me wonder if Apple now feels more entitled to ship a “minimum viable product,” knowing that they can follow up quickly with bug fixes and updates released via the App Store before too many people notice. I also wonder if the situation would be different if Apple still charged money for its software updates. In the world of commerce, a customer has leverage in the ability to demand a refund if a product doesn’t perform as advertised. In an ideal world, this keeps everyone honest, and always shipping their best work.

I’ve been an Apple customer since the Mac was at System 7, and I have seen some pretty darn perfect operating systems. (I pine for Tiger.) And I don’t even use many of the more frivolous features. Launchpad? Nah, I use command-spacebar. Dashboard? Nope. Disabled it. It is frustrating to have had near-perfection, and then to have it taken away (though I believe it will return).

As negative and complaining as all the above sounds, I am still and probably will continue to be a loyal Apple person. In the course of my work, I have to spend more time than I care to admit using a PC, and aside from the more appropriate level of text contrast on Windows, most of the rest of the experience is strictly business, and far less appealing to me as a lifestyle platform. Most likely I’m not going to switch (though there are times when I consider it). Furthermore, I’m in awe of what we can do with these machines and with this software. It’s tremendous. It has provided me and many others with tools we’ve been able to use to build our entire careers, and I am eternally grateful.

For me, what it boils down to is ergonomics. Anything that we use for multiple hours a day should be as intuitive and comfortable as possible, should not pester us with poorly-explained details of its inner workings, and should not get in our way. The oversights I’ve described here are the software equivalents of the squeaky office chair, the dripping faucet, the office full of random smartphone and photocopier sounds, and the buzzing headliner of a car—all little annoyances that collectively chip away at the quality of our experience.

Author: Trace Meek

Web designer and artist living in Western Massachusetts. Snowshoer. Gardener. Hockey player. Motorcyclist. Tree hugger.