Software Quality Emerging as Apple's Soft Underbelly

By Don Reisinger  |  Posted 2009-09-11

Software Quality Emerging as Apple's Soft Underbelly

Apple arguably enjoys the most respect and adoration in the tech industry. Consumers all the over the globe wait to hear what the company will be offering next. But in the past two days, Apple has released an update to the iPhone OS and its new "Snow Leopard" operating system.

The latter update came just two weeks after Apple released Snow Leopard on Aug. 28. Some might say it's not a major update and it encompasses a few minor fixes to enhance Snow Leopard's experience. But I'm not so quick to agree. I think it reflects a real problem Apple is having: Its software isn't as reliable as it wants us to believe.

There's no debating that the iPhone provides an outstanding experience. Its software has made the device so successful. With applications, almost perfect touch response and a healthy helping of slick features, the iPhone has risen to the top of the mobile phone industry. 

But it's not without its problems. An iPhone 3.1 update fixed several problems, including how the phone synchronizes with Exchange. eWEEK's Andrew Garcia wrote in his review of iPhone OS Version 3.1 that prior to installing the update he wasn't able to "synchronize in a predictable manner unless data push was enabled." Finally, only after the update was added to his iPhone, was he able to sync properly through Exchange.

On the Mac OS X side, things aren't much better. Just a couple weeks after releasing Snow Leopard, Apple has already been forced to update the software with several fixes. Snow Leopard 10.6.1 fixes an issue that might stop DVD playback without notice. The update also addresses printer compatibility problems (an issue I'm still dealing with) and a bug that makes it difficult to remove items from the Dock. And that's just the tip of the iceberg. There are many more issues addressed in the update, including a security fix.

It should be noted that software needing updates isn't anything new. Apple, like every other company that's forced to maintain operating systems, needs to constantly deal with slight problems that really only show themselves when they're made available to the public. But it's the fact that Apple, a company that prides itself on selling a premium product for a premium price, has spent so much time over the past few months updating software that's cause for concern.

Earlier this in September, Apple released a note saying that Mac OS X "Leopard" versions 10.5.8 and later are susceptible to a security problem that could allow a "Java applet to obtain elevated privileges." 

Apple Must Focus on Software Quality

The security notice came on the heels of several other updates made to Apple's OS over the past few months that have addressed similar problems. Apple isn't unique in needing to update software, but I do believe that as these issues become more frequent, Apple will need to do a better job of proving to users that it really is providing a premium product.

For the past few years, Apple has spent millions of dollars advertising the quality of its products. Its "I'm a Mac, I'm a PC" ads have done wonders for the company. They have detailed (fairly or not) how far superior Apple's operating systems are to Microsoft's. As a user of both operating systems, I think it's safe to say that Mac OS X is indeed more robust than Windows Vista.

But with the release of Windows 7 right around the corner, Apple can't rest on its laurels, allow software issues to frequently arise and expect to maintain its monopoly on the OS conversation. Windows 7 is a better operating system than Vista. And although it will undoubtedly suffer from more security problems than Snow Leopard and Microsoft will eventually release updates to fix bugs, what can Apple really say to make itself look better if it is updating its own software with almost the same frequency?

On the mobile side, it's an entirely different story. The fact that the iPhone can't quite get Exchange support to work is an embarrassment for Apple. But it's only embarrassing when the company considers those who use Exchange support. The vast majority of users who don't use Exchange won't even know the difference. And even with all the software updates affecting their iPhones, they're probably quite pleased with the Apple product.

Going forward

So as we look ahead at how Apple will adapt to its success, it's important to realize that the company still reigns supreme when it comes to hardware design. On that side, it's still a premium provider of a premium product. But in software, there's room for improvement. 

Although it might appeal to some, the company's operating systems aren't quite as "premium" as its hardware. And if there's any place where competing companies can capitalize on an Apple weakness and possibly capture market share from the company, it's in software. A better operating system providing a more robust experience might be able to beat Apple. The only problem is, right now, no such operating system-either in the mobile or desktop markets-is available.

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