Apple this week introduced new iPods and a new version of its iTunes digital media management software and promised a new version of its iPhone system software by the end of the week. But unlike with many such announcements, Apple has found itself facing mounting criticisms surrounding the blandness of its hardware updates and the buggy quality of its recent software.
Tuesday's "Let's Rock" event was surprisingly lacking in the excitement department. Apple CEO Steve Jobs has dodged persistent questions about his presumed poor health, but appeared at the event looking overly thin and sickly, prompting more worrying from investors and analysts. He quickly downplayed the health rumors and moved on to describe Apple's dominance in the industry, which is prodigious: Its iPod devices and iTunes service pretty much own their respective markets.
But with dominance, apparently, comes maturity and slowing improvements. Apple didn't announce any meaningful new products at the show, deciding instead to offer up evolutionary updates to its existing product line. The best-selling iPod nano line got the biggest boost with a familiar Zune-like form factor and an iPhone-like accelerometer which detects when the device is turned so that movies can be watched in the proper orientation. The iPod touch got an even smaller update, adding previously-missing volume buttons and a speaker, and a price cut. The iPod classic was defanged somewhat with the previous 80 GB and 160 GB models being replaced by a single 120 GB product.
Apple's iTunes PC software, updated to version 8.0 on Tuesday, has come under fire for causing "Blue Screen of Death" (BSOD) crashes in Windows. For this to happen, Apple has to be installing a kernel-level driver on the system, and sure enough, that's exactly what's happened. Critics of the company point out that this driver is installed without warning, and whether it's needed or not, but the BSOD crashes seem to be related with iPod connectivity.
The problems with iTunes aren't exactly an anomaly for Apple and, in many ways, 2008 has been a tough year for the quality of the company's software products. The iPhone 3G launch, while successful, has been marred by rampant and endemic problems with the device's system software, wireless hardware, and wireless service, and Apple has tried unsuccessfully to fix things twice already with software updates. A third update attempt, iPhone Software 2.1, is ready, according to Apple. But the company won't let iPhone users download it until Friday for some reason. Users of the similar iPod touch device got the update on Tuesday, angering iPhone users, who pay AT&T expensive fees of at least $80 per month for the right to use the device.
Apple's MobileMe service has also launched in spectacularly bad fashion in July, and customers have complained of outages so often that Apple has provided subscribers with 3 months of free service. That service seeks to synchronize data between the PC and the Web.
What this all adds up to is a big embarrassment for a company whose biggest claim to fame is its constant criticisms of the supposed bugginess in Microsoft's products. This year, however, it seems that Apple has been the cause of far more widespread software issues than has Microsoft. Maybe Apple should spend less time poking fun at its competition and more fixing the problems it's caused for millions of customers.