With the recent release of Haunted Empire, we’re back to another round of argument about whether Apple still innovates or not. Actually, it’s more contradiction than argument. An argument is an intellectual process, the innovation squabble is just automatic gainsaying.

Online wrangling about Apple often devolves into a pissing contest over popularity and market share, which doesn’t advance the cause of either side. It’s never made sense to me why Apple’s customers care so much about the company’s sales figures, stock price, or overall financial well-being. As long as Apple is doing well enough to continue to make products we like, what difference does any of that make?

I say this as someone who left Apple when it was at its fiscal nadir. After using Macs exclusively from 1985 on, I reckoned it was time to light out for Linux territory near the end of 1996, just before Apple bought NeXT. But I didn’t leave because I thought Apple was about to go under, I left because the platform had turned to shit. The purchase of NeXT, and the courting of Be that came before it, was Apple finally admitting that it didn’t have the chops to fix an operating system that was in dire straits.1

Back then, Apple’s inability to produce reliable software preceded a rapid drop in revenue. Today, in a weird, upside-down reflection of that time, Apple’s great financial success has preceded a rapid drop in software quality, and it’s hard to avoid drawing conclusions about cause and effect. The easy explanation, right or wrong, is that Apple’s success has spread it too thin and that the attention to detail we saw up until a few years ago has been lost.

Do you think Apple’s software quality is as high as it’s ever been? Then you must have missed these:

Despite my angry tweet from last night, I don’t really believe these problems are as bad as those we faced in 1996. The impression I get from developers is that the foundations of OS X, iOS, and their support libraries are solid, something that certainly wasn’t true two decades ago. Good, reliable apps can be made by developers who care, but Apple—despite standout programs like Safari and Preview—is slipping out of that category. When I look at my Dock and phone’s home screen, I see fewer Apple icons than I did a year ago.

I haven’t replaced the built-in apps with programs that are more innovative, I’ve replaced them with programs that work, programs that do the unglamorous, behind-the-scenes labor to get it right. Apple’s applications used to be examples of this: good design and reliable, if limited, functionality. Now, too often, they’re counterexamples.

  1. Those of you who were around for Systems 7 and 8 have probably just had a terrifying flashback to “cooperative multitasking” and setting memory allocations for your apps. Sorry. 

  2. Take action!