Wednesday, April 29, 2015

My Apple Saga

I must have spent a cumulative total of five full days and nights on a collection of “Planes, Trains, and Automobiles” during a recent business trip - an experience not even remotely as enjoyable or humorous as the one portrayed in the eponymous movie. I even enjoyed a free trip to Reykjavík airport in Iceland for a short one hour detour on the way home when our flight was diverted there as a fellow passenger fell ill. I think it would be safe to say that I’ve now taken Iceland off my bucket list. The place is bleak – even in October.

Anyway, somewhere early on the trip, bored out of my mind in the hotel room in Dubrovnik, or was it Bangkok, I decided to upgrade my iPhone software to iOS 8: iOS8.0.2, to be exact. And I was off on a multi-day journey of agony.

My iPhone music database somehow got out of sync with my laptop's iTunes library music database and refused to sync music across the two devices. I'm sure there is an “if” statement in there somewhere that says "I give up. I can't figure out what to do in this corner case, so just throw up your hands and do nothing.” No error messages, no indication of problems. Just silent non-operation. “No syncing for you!”

So I tried to upgrade to the latest iTunes on my laptop since Apple kept politely reminding me to do so. Sure, let's see if the latest release of that software fixes the problem. Of course not. But the upgrade also resulted in a brand new iTunes UI and now I spent half an hour trying to find my way around. Still no go.

So I decided to go back to factory settings on my iPhone. When in doubt, Reset: The software engineer’s motto. It must be the dozens of upgrades I’ve done to both the iPhone and the iTunes software over the years causing havoc with the database schema.  Ok, finally. Some progress. I managed to get them to sync. But then my iPhone voice control thingy went berserk and started showing up every two minutes asking what I wanted it to do for me. As far as I can tell (after half an hour of searching the web), there is no way to turn this “useful” feature off. I could turn Siri on and off, but that made no difference. This was some older voice control system that is still in there. So much for listening to music on my iPhone.

Upon landing in Amsterdam, I was also surprised to see that my phone refused to ring even when the caller was standing two steps away and while the phone claimed to be receiving a perfect signal. Reset the phone again, problem gone. Just remember to do this every other day, especially if traveling internationally and switching between different carriers.

I will spare you the details of the dozen or so other minor problems I ran into. So I gave up on the iPhone and tried to sync my music with the iPad - by coincidence, the only Apple piece of software I hadn't upgraded through this whole episode. And it worked flawlessly.

So much for Apple as the shiny example of quality and user experience in the industry. I guess that's what happens when your systems become bigger and more complex and you have more and more combinatorics to test: Using feature in application b on iPhone hardware version running iOS version syncing with iTunes version e running on Windows version f or MacOS version g, etc. It's just natural that you can’t test every case. Hence the quality and interop issues.

Reminds me of the old Microsoft days. And it's taken less than ten years. I guess it's just a reminder that adding one more option to a distributed system doesn't increase its complexity linearly. It increases it exponentially.

The irony is not lost on me that I now have to carry three devices around with me - laptop, iPhone, and iPad - and let us not forget “the cloud”, just to listen to some music: a task I used to accomplish with a CD player and a stack of CD’s just five years ago. Ah... Progress
A few days after returning from the above mentioned trip, I was happy to finally receive my brand shiny new iPhone 6 in the mail. As soon as I stopped salivating over the box and started using it, though, my enthusiasm turned sour.

My old nemesis, the “Voice Control" system, was back, interrupting me every couple of minutes asking how it could help, all while I tried to listen to some music. I wondered if anyone else was hearing this annoying disembodied “voice” from beyond trying to “control” them. Perhaps I had lost it after all and it was all just a voice in my head!

Half an hour of furious Googling led me to thousands of other similar complaints and hundreds of proposed solutions – some including scotch tape, blow dryers, and chewing gum!

It was only then that I realized I had neglected to experiment with one variable in the formula: the headphones! I swapped out my headphones and, voila, the annoying voice went away. Apparently, it’s a known issue caused by a short in headphone wires.

At least that one bug was not Apple’s fault. Now onto the other two dozen issues I’ve run into.

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