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After 10 years, Apple is totally changing how it makes iPhone software — and users should be ecstatic (AAPL)

Kif Leswing
Tim Cook

AP


  • Apple is reportedly focusing on performance in the next version of iOS, the iPhone software.
  • This is great news for iPhone owners, who have increasingly noticed bugs and glitches in Apple's software.
  • Apple is expected to release the new version of iOS in September.


If you use an iPhone, you've probably recently encountered an annoying glitch or bug.

In the past few months alone, iPhone owners have run into some real whoppers. For instance:

Does this mean the quality of Apple's software is slipping, as experts and armchair analysts have been debating for the past year? It's hard to tell for sure — software always has bugs, and as Apple sells more iPhones, it increases the potential pool of people who will encounter a glitch.

But the biggest sign that this is an issue comes from Apple, which is set to upend its traditional software-release strategy.

The next version of iOS most likely won't have a major home-screen redesign or a big killer new feature, as previous versions have brought. Instead, the update will focus on bug fixes, stability, and getting things right, according to reports from Bloomberg and Axios.

When the next iOS comes out — probably in beta this summer with a global rollout in the fall — it'll probably be very similar to your current iPhone experience, but faster, more stable, and more reliable.

And isn't that what everyone wants?

Marching to a drum

U.S. Army Reserve color guard soldiers carry the colors on Fifth Avenue during the annual New York City Veterans Day Parade in New York, NY, U.S., November 11, 2017. Picture taken November 11, 2017. Hector Rene Membreno-Canales/U.S. Army/Handout via REUTERS

Thomson Reuters

The decision to focus on bug fixes reveals a huge change in the way Apple develops software.

One thing that makes Apple special among big tech companies, people who have worked at Apple say, is the importance of the release schedule for hardware, which needs to be designed, programmed, built, and shipped by a certain date; you can't go back and fix it afterward.

So the whole company keeps its eyes on the all-important product-release schedule. Some compare it to an army marching: Everyone moves forward in lockstep, working toward a common goal.

But 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 so-called "tentpole" features — big 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 now taking a longer, less deadline-driven view to "tentpole" features is a big change. In fact, 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.

From Bloomberg: 

"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 realizes 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. For them, reliability is much more important than a software update that may add a feature their older phones don't even support like the lip-syncing Animoji, currently an iPhone X exclusive. And that's especially true if those software updates introduce the possibility of new bugs or glitches that complicate their experience.

So ultimately, this change is very good news for any iPhone owner. Innovation at Apple won't 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's 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.

Don't panic

Lion Animoji

AppleIn 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's fully mature.

And mature products don't necessarily need to change every year for comparatively 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 long series of tweets on Monday that Apple's bugs aren't necessarily more common than they were in the past. Instead, 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's happening at Apple is a natural reaction to the balance a giant project like iOS needs.

Tweet Embed:
https://twitter.com/mims/statuses/963142588059541504?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw
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”.

And the "buggy feeling" is due to the fact that hundreds of millions of people use iPhones for hours per day. "What is different is that at scale a bug that happens to 0.01% of people is a lot of people," he tweeted. "A stadium full or more."

Tweet Embed:
https://twitter.com/mims/statuses/963145423216095232?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw
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.

His takeaway? Don't panic: Apple knows what it's doing, and whatever change to its development process is currently going on will make Apple stronger in the long run.

Tweet Embed:
https://twitter.com/mims/statuses/963145431810224128?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw
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. Tweet Embed:
https://twitter.com/mims/statuses/963145438818746369?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw
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. Tweet Embed:
https://twitter.com/mims/statuses/963145488471117824?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw
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.

This isn't 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's going to produce software for iPhones is a very good development 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.

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