Apple is giving me anxiety attacks, but what can we do about it?

Apple Induced Anxiety (2015-09-08)

It just works.

Wow. Boom.

Like magic.

Feelings

There's been a feeling in the blogocube over the past year about something1 being rotten in Cupertino.

Software doesn't work quite right2. Concerns go ignored. Common problems fail to get better. Millions—tens of millions—of users suffer, praying to an absent corporate god.

When Apple betrays us, it hurts. We associate Apple with magic3, pleasure, and caring for users in a non-maximally-profit-extracting sense.

We associate those feelings with Apple not just because of fancy marketing, but because Apple products work better than others, shield us from unnecessary complexity, and put users first4.

This page is a brief overview of common Apple software errors as of September 9, 2015 that almost defy explanation due to their paradoxical combination of both simplicity and pervasiveness.

Apple Music on iOS5 / iTunes on iOS / iPod App

Listening to music using an iPhone is now an exercise in near-constant frustration.

I spend 10 to 15 hours a week listening to music on my iPhone. Here are problems I hit almost every day since Apple Music launched6.

Error 1: It reboots the phone

Tested failure condition: open control center, tap play, tap pause, tap next next next next continuously and the phone quickly reboots.

Error 2: It eats mobile data when told not to

After an iOS update, the "Only show music stored on this iPhone" setting gets turned off, then Apple Music begins eating wireless data when it had previously been explicitly told not to consume wireless data.

Is Apple Music tied into that magic feature where bluetooth always resets to enabled after an iOS update regardless of being previously manually disabled?

Error 3: Control center doesn't remember last playing song

Swipe up to open Control Center. Hmm... no song is showing even though I paused a playing song recently.

This also means Apple Music and/or iOS threw away the last played position in the currently paused song.

Error 4: After hitting Play, it takes 5 seconds for a song to start

With Apple Music installed, Control Center routinely takes 5 seconds to begin playing an on-device song. 5 seconds. On-device. No network access required. 5 seconds is over 5 billion CPU instructions7. What are you doing?

I'm pretty sure an analog tape player had a more consistent user experience8 than the first two releases of Apple Music9.

Error 5: Control center gets disconnected from music app

Swipe up to open Control Center. No song is showing. Tap play. Wait 5 seconds. Nothing. Tap play again. Nothing. Now Play seems to be completely disconnected from the music player. Open Apple Music app, manually play song, hit next to initiate a 'random'10 song, control center works again.

Now we've seen two distinct delay behaviors. One resolves itself after 5 seconds. One does nothing. So you have to wait at least 5 seconds to discover if anything will actually happen before taking manual corrective action. This is confusing.

Error 6: Music stutters and skips

Music is playing. Open Safari to browse. Music skips when Safari animates.

Read page in Safari. Close page. Music skips during page close animation.

Open another app. Music skips when app animates. Cry.

iPod plays without skipping a beat.

With an industry-leading 20 minutes of skip protection, iPod keeps playing without missing a beat. In addition to its 5GB hard drive, iPod has a 32MB memory cache. The cache is made up of solid-state memory, meaning that it has no mechanical or moving parts, so it’s not affected by movement of the device. iPod skip protection works by continually preloading up to 20 minutes of music into the cache.

That quote is from the original iPod product page in November 2001.

Apple Music in 2015 betrays the original spirit of the iPod. How do we reconcile such a backwards step in usability? We have supercomputers in our pockets and they can't play music reliably. How do we reconcile such a backwards step nobody in development or product management seems to acknowledge or be interested in fixing11?

Error 7: Search is useless

Search for an artist. Apple Music shows three albums. The artist has 10 albums in my library. There's no way to go beyond the three "preview" results. The search result is just a summary. You can't actually search for anything with more than three results. What's going on here?

Error 8: Downloading on-device doesn't complete

When selecting multiple artists and albums for offline playing, Apple Music get stuck on "downloading song" and stays there for an hour until I manually swipe-up-to-exit the Apple Music app.

Bonus Error: iPhone lock screen interface is tiny

The easy access media buttons on an iPhone 6 Plus lock screen are tiny compared to the available screen space. It takes effort to tap the correct button or to tap any button at all. Sacrificing usability for cross-device consistency seems a bad choice here12.

Combined

Features fail to work on the first try. This violates the principles of magic, childlike wonder, and, most blatantly, it just works.

Every action inside the Apple Music iOS app causes frustration. When you attempt an action, you can't guess the result13 ahead of time. Will it do what I expect? Will it show a summary result you can't drill down inside? Will it start to work then just break for an hour? Will it appear to do nothing after a tap, sit idle for 5 seconds, then actually work? Or will it appear to do nothing then actually do nothing?

iPhone music player now is unable to:

  • reliably remember the song and play position when paused. A portable CD player from 20 years ago did this better. Mod players on Amiga did this better. WinAmp did this better.
  • play songs continuously without skipping. CD players had anti-skip mechanisms. MP3 players were supposed to never skip.
  • search for albums and artists
  • skip through many songs at once one after the other (causes the phone to reboot)
  • play a song reliably. sometimes the play button works, sometimes it takes 5 seconds to work, sometimes it does nothing.

What is wrong with us? These defects cause actual frustration in the world.

Did Apple change? Did the world get so complicated even the most valuable company humanity has ever built can't create usable software anymore?

These flaws wouldn't be released in a dedicated hardware device, but since this is only one application on a mobile platform, it seems errors are more acceptable. Fixes are only an update away, right? Except updates take months to appear and people have materially broken experiences in the meantime.

Time Wasted

Once, Apple cared about seconds of time. Now playing a song has a forced 5 second delay (for no discernible reason).

Are we supposed to accept our lives will get continually worse with every software update14?

This isn't the world of technology and advancement and wonder I signed up for.

Rationale

It's pretty clear Apple Music replacing iTunes for iOS had only one goal: deploy the monthly subscription Apple Music service in an Apple Music app. The performance doesn't matter as long as people can pay us. Previous features don't matter as long as new people can pay us. After all, the streaming market is growing, we're 5 years behind, and we've got to catch up. It's all about the new users; nothing existing matters.

I imagine much of these issues are management mediated and the bottom-of-the-org-chart employees doing the real work are as frustrated as external users.

Words matter

The inability to conceptualize what may be wrong with Apple Music is going to hurt Apple Music users and internal development for years. The previous sentence doesn't really make sense, does it? Do I mean Apple Music the service or Apple Music the app? Do I mean Apple Music iTunes iCloud Music Library or a historical iTunes Match Library interface? Do I mean streaming is acting up or the user interface is confusing?

If we can't intelligently distinguish between an application, a service, multiple instances of the service on the backend, and the way the user interacts with each of those, how can developers keep any of it un-confused? Apple Music is flawed at such a conceptual level it's not clear the design is salvageable.

Why is Apple Music subscription service inside the local music player?

Users of iTunes / Apple Music can't reason about where their music lives. We've even seen the creators of Apple Music can't reason about where music comes from in a library.

Why did we get confusing and broken functionality (physical library, iTunes Match library, Apple Music library, iTunes iCloud Music Library) instead of a clean, new app that can assume any design and functionality goals it wants along with assuming any wacky new backend storage models it needs?

Corporate Bindings

Does nobody inside Apple use the most used app shipping with iPhones? Is everybody inside Apple running nightly betas with all errors fixed so they don't experience months of problems normies suffer through?

I'd love the inside story of how many managers had input into the Apple Music app15. The entire user experience is horked in such a way no single person could have made so many poor decisions alone—only committees have such power16. It's a music app designed for a feature checklist instead of actual human users. Is any part of the music player simple, easy, or intuitive to use?

Oh, and give us a frigging random or shuffle button back. How did you ship without that? Who is in charge of anything?17

If the people in charge of Apple Music don't listen to music for 20+ hours a week on their phone, perhaps you need another classic Apple re-org. We can't have world-class applications under the responsibility of people who don't live inside the use cases they are responsible for building, growing18, and sharing with the world.

Moving on to a new wonderful topic...

iOS Updating

Does iOS updating work for anybody? You would think using the iOS flagship device, an iPhone 6 Plus 128 GB as of this writing, would mean basic functions just work. But, the most basic built-in actions find new ways to disappoint19.

Here's my basic process for updating iOS:

  • Tap Download Update -> enter password -> Download begins.
  • Download completes.
  • Tap Install -> enter password -> nothing happens.
  • Tap Install -> enter password -> nothing happens.
  • Tap Install -> enter password -> nothing happens.
  • Tap Install -> enter password -> nothing happens.
  • Reboot phone to fix the updater not working.
  • Enter password again (unlock after reboot).
  • Tap Install -> enter password -> verifying update... -> installing...
  • Phone becomes unusable for 6 minutes while updating.
  • Phone reboots.
  • Enter password again (unlock after reboot).

To install a software update, I had to enter my password about 10 times.

This is apparently perfectly normal and has happened for multiple update cycles.

Further gripe: The update process requires the phone to become unusable for over five minutes. Your phone—your world-wide, life-or-death communications device—becomes unusable because you want to update your music player20.

iOS Bundled Applications

Why do Apple-bundled applications continue to have a privileged place in the application hierarchy21? Sure, applications can be pre-loaded, but applications should not be only updateable by forcing an entire OS version bump.

Why do I have to update-on-reboot my phone (causing multiple minutes of downtime) to update a music player?

It's 2015. We have the technology. We can fix this.

Conclusion

Apple Music App seems to have been designed by lizard people from space22 to be used by lizard people from space.

Even though Apple has over 30,000 corporate staff (not counting retail), often it feels as if Apple is just 8 people focusing on one serial task at a time, constantly rushed, never having enough resources, then finally releasing stayed-up-all-night-working-on-this-teach OS components.

Apple is the world's most valuable company, so why can't we create the world's most valuable software? These are fixable problems, but only if Apple embraces the future and chips away at ingrained historical habits.

Let's stop the monolithic releases required for OS + built-in app updating. Let's stop with only highly blessed app updates four times per year. Let's iterate software quicker with more routine public deliverables. Let's create extremely narrow corporate application owners responsible for usability and for the soul of an application. Let's innovate the shit out of built-in apps23. Let's create software for the world, not for lizard people from space.

Let's update Apple's corporate motto: Apple, for humans, by humans; no lizard people involved24.

-Matt

Disclaimer: I have AAPL on a monthly purchase plan with loyal3 and I believe Apple is already the world's first trillion dollar company, but the markets can't see what's right in front of them.


  1. discoveryd

  2. With the 10.10.5 update, Terminal.app started breaking vim (sometimes, randomly). I can't explain why. vim randomly stalls now after the update

  3. sudo pkill -9 coreaudiod

  4. well, Apple seems to actually put the desires of Jony before the needs of users, even if some of his beliefs and implementations contradict how millions of users understand software. I'm talking about you, inconceivably inconvenient shift key. I'm talking to you, buttons rendered as text with no indication it's actually a tap target.

  5. What is the name of the iOS music player? iTunes? Apple Music? Apple Music is the music service, but is it also the app? But the app doesn't just play Apple Music (streaming), it plays your iTunes iCloud Music Library (if enabled) or local files (if not enabled) or a mix of both or Apple Radio. The ambiguity of naming these things means users, developers, managers, and internal product owners can't even reason about how it all fits together.

  6. One would think my $1,000 pocket supercomputer could play music flawlessly. One would be mistaken.

  7. Over 10 billion if you include two cores

  8. who decided to have 8 to 12 choices in Apple Music menus? That's a deliver-their-head-on-a-plate level of poor design.

  9. Some people may argue: it's just a first release. Give them a break! It'll get better in time.

    Yes, it is the first release and the first update (released one month later), but why do so many overt errors take months and months to fix? Do hundreds of millions of people need to suffer broken software just so Apple can maintain its "we only update software once every 100 days" update schedule?

    All this would be much simpler to fix if Apple would allow updating built-in apps without requiring an entirely new OS revision. Every middling developer releases weekly updates [bug fixes and improvements]. Apple apps get updates maybe two to four times a year.

    Apple has hundreds of billions of dollars sitting idle. We know adding people to projects doesn't fix them quickly, but some part of Apple must be re-evaluated. They have the resources of the world at their disposal and can't make a coherent music app?

    Apple doesn't get the same leeway as a single developer with limited resources releasing an app from their basement. Pushing an application to a hundred million users with the blatant flaws we see today betrays larger organizational in-fighting problems.

  10. give us a frigging Shuffle button again

  11. if they are interested in fixing it, but the fix takes more than two months, that's the same as not being interested in fixing it. Customers pay for experience, not to extend endless patience after purchasing, what was assumed to be complete, products. Apple is the intersection of technology and liberal arts, the merging of hardware and software, the pinnacle of user experience—except when it isn't.

  12. I'm going to start tattooing Fitts's law on the hands and forearms of Apple designers. They'll never be able to forget it or fail to consider it again.

  13. anxiety (n.): a feeling of worry, nervousness, or unease, typically about an imminent event or something with an uncertain outcome.

  14. Welp, this is my life now.

  15. any combination of visual design, functionality, and back-end services design

  16. Assuming the committee had no caring leader with enough autonomy to tell all the bad decision makers pushing their own agendas to please, kindly, do the needful and GTFO.

  17. Lizard people?

  18. Growing the music app? It has never been extremely usable and always largely seemed neglected. Why isn't the music app the most amazing music player ever created by humanity? Why neglect? This is where the feeling of Apple only having one department just sequentially changing focus comes into play. We can do more than one thing at once. Hire more programmers. Train up more cross functional geniuses. Can't find programmers to hire? Train more developers. These are solvable problems with ambition, time, organizational talent, and money.

  19. Is the ratio of radar-to-engineer too high? Is every developer assigned 64,000 errors to fix? Are these systems problems, process problems, or engineering/talent problems?

  20. Unacceptable

  21. outside of any device-specific applications. by the way, give us a frigging built-in iPad calculator app already. oh, and fix the orientation problem with iOS calculator, okay? got it? kthx.

  22. Let's not begin to mention the logo. Who made the Apple Music iOS logo? It's a "my first logo" gradient effect surrounded by white. Know what else is surrounded by white? The Safari icon. They are not indistinguishable at casual glance, which is really bad. The icons are next to each other by default and need to be more visually distinct.

  23. Why is the built in music player so limited? Why doesn't it have pulse mediated playlist curation linked to Apple Watch? Why does it play Carrie & Lowell when I'm running? I don't want to cry when I'm running. If Apple had a full time development team just focused on creating the best, most kick-ass music player in existence, they could do a perfect job. But, the feeling is there's 100x more politics going on inside Apple than software development. We can cut through the BS to make the world a better place, but we need self-directed autonomy inside Apple to make it happen.

  24. this is not intended to promote speciesism against lizard people, though you know what you did