Apple (AAPL) has long enjoyed a reputation of producing perfectly engineered products that worked out of the box without complication. But as the company has become massively large and popular, there are questions about whether it does provide the level of quality that once brought it fame.
Early in January, Web and iPhone software developer Marco Arment, a co-founder of Tumblr and creator of Instapaper who is seen as a big supporter of Apple, wrote a blog post that he would come to regret, titled Apple has lost the functional high ground. A play on losing the moral high ground, he argued that a "rapid decline" of Apple's software quality was a sign that "marketing is too high a priority" at the company.
Arment would quickly regret the post. Massive references to his views made him feel "guilt and embarrassment" because what he meant as constructive criticism was widely viewed as an attack. He said that the term "nosedive" is what he most regretted having used. "It suggests that Apple is quickly and suddenly falling to an imminent doom, while I intended to express a more gradual progression causing long-term reputation damage," he wrote.
Arment may have regretted some hyperbole, but he clearly thought that there was something wrong at Apple's Cupertino headquarters. He isn't the only one. Journalist Glenn Fleishman put together a list of 27 software problems and services that Apple should fix. (Hat tip to Philip Elmer-DeWitt at Fortune, who covers Apple and who wrote that the list "should be a wake-up call for Cupertino.")
Former company executive Jean-Louis Gassée wrote that he has "become increasingly concerned about the quality of Apple software" over the last six months.
From the painful gestation of OS X 10.10 (Yosemite) with its damaged iWork apps, to the chaotic iOS 8 launch, iCloud glitches, and the trouble with Continuity, I've gotten a bad feeling about Apple's software quality management. "It Just Works", the company's pleasant-sounding motto, became an easy target, giving rise to jibes of "it just needs more work".
Notable are the sources of the comments -- all people with long-standing interest in or allegiance to Apple. In the past, such voices would be moderate or even silent over what loyalists might have dismissed as peccadillos, but the problems have become too numerous and significant. As Arment wrote, "'It just works' was never completely true, but I don't think the list of qualifiers and asterisks has ever been longer."
The Apple faithful might still eschew Microsoft (MSFT) Windows and Google (GOOG) Android, but the days are long past when Apple could be comfortable seeing the wagons circling. There aren't enough hardcore fans to support the company's business. Apple is a broad-based consumer electronics company that must target virtually everyone if it's to maintain its success over the long run.
Even as Apple's performance last quarter might give investors a happy surprise because of sales that may have been unexpectedly high, the question is what happens over the longer term. The Apple Watch may not woo enough consumers to become a smash hit, in which case Apple must protect the reputation of its core products if it will continue to support its mammoth financial needs.