Some good, some dangerous: Apple’s updates this year

One of the most compelling arguments for Apple owning all the hardware on which its operating systems run, is that of compatibility. Buy a Mac, iPhone, iPad, or any other device from Apple, and it should always run its current operating system consistently, and update flawlessly.

Apple’s products should not suffer the sort of problems that have bedevilled PCs, such that Microsoft even has a page detailing the most common errors. Nor should they ever cause the “massive problems” reported last month in Windows 10 updates.

Unlike Android phones and tablets, all reasonably modern Apple devices should be able to update to the current version of iOS straightaway, without having to wait for product-specific updates which might never appear.

Although it is impossible to gauge how many Apple users have had update nightmares, Apple does not seem to have performed to expectations this year.

OS X has had three ‘minor’ updates, each of which has been very large in size, suggesting that they were more than minor incremental fixes, taking it to 10.11.3, 10.11.4, and 10.11.5, and countless silent changes to XProtect and other system files.

Problems updating to, or resulting from, 10.11.3 on 19 January seem not to have been prominent. As with every update, there were a few users who reported glitches, but on this occasion they do seem to have been confined to the few. Instead, Apple pushed out a silent update to its kernel extension (KEXT) security settings at the end of February which blocked Ethernet ports on several of the most recent models of Mac, including MacBook Pros and high-end iMacs.

El Capitan 10.11.4, which shipped on 21 March, was an even bigger problem for many of those using recent Macs, causing sporadic but repeated freezes on certain MacBook Pro and iMac models. Although these might have been largely resolved with 10.11.5 on 16 May, some oddities remain.

Power Management, in the Energy Saver pane, continues to behave differently from model to model. My own experience here is that my top-end end current iMac 27″ put its internal Fusion Drive to sleep whenever the system went to sleep prior to 10.11.5, and occasionally suffered system crashes as a result. Now that it is running 10.11.5, the same setting to not put disks to sleep doesn’t put the system to sleep at all. But a different model, even a slightly different iMac, may behave quite differently.

iOS has had one more substantial update to 9.3, and three ‘minor’ updates, to 9.2.1, 9.3.1, and 9.3.2.

iOS 9.2.1, on 19 January, should have been a small security update, but many users complained of battery endurance problems as a result.

iOS 9.3 on 21 March bricked so many iPad 2 units that Apple was forced to push out revised versions of the update. Even then many users found their devices freezing when clicking links in emails, and suffering other issues.

The answer to iOS 9.3 should have been 9.3.1, provided just 10 days later and out of cycle, to try to repair the damage. But many found more issues, and it caused problems with Bluetooth connections on the latest iPhone SE.

iOS 9.3.2, released on 16 May, should have seen off those remaining issues in 9.3.1, but instead started bricking many iPad Pro 9.7″ models – something of a catastrophe not only for their users, but for Apple to hit its latest and much-promoted tablet so hard. This was sufficiently serious as to force Apple to block updating any more of that model, to limit the destruction. Amazingly, I managed to update my own iPad Pro 9.7″ and it is still running 9.3.2 flawlessly. I do go to sleep with my fingers still firmly crossed, though.

There are many other reports of problems with 9.3.2 which tend to confirm the old lesson that repeatedly trying to patch bad patches is just going to dig the hole deeper.

What is worse, Apple inflicts these problems in batches. Keeping OS X and iOS in kilter may be very helpful for iCloud and synchronisation purposes, but it means that the many of us with Macs, iPads, iPhones, and other Apple devices, undergo update mayhem for a day or more every couple of months. As Apple often chooses to update its other software products, such as OS X Server, Xcode, and its apps, at about the same time, keeping up to date is coming to dominate more of our lives than is healthy.

If this were early in the life of the major product releases, such as 10.11.0 and 9.0, then it might be more understandable, perhaps even forgivable for a while. But El Capitan and iOS 9.0 are ten months old, and should be stabilising, not getting more wobbly by the week.

One solution is to delay updating any Apple product until the bugs have surfaced. As these updates wrap bug-fixes and important security updates together, the safety in that strategy is an illusion, as you are left exposed to security vulnerabilities when they are most likely to be exploited.

From outside, this has all the hallmarks of product update cycles which are driven by the calendar, and override the quality management system. Instead of updates being orchestrated for release when they are done, Apple appears to be pushing most out before they have been adequately tested and debugged. In doing so, it is hurting its reputation, and making the lives of many of its customers considerably more fraught.