Sadness With Sierra

21 September 2016

I run betas on my iOS devices but I stay on public releases for macOS (née OS X) as I only have one machine and stability is mission critical. As such, I installed macOS Sierra for the first time yesterday when it was released to the public.

It would be unfair to call Sierra buggy. I haven’t seen any apps crash or any system hangs. Reports from the beta seeds concur that 10.12 is solid. I do get the impression that Sierra is somehow unfinished, or rushed. There are only a handful of headline new features, but I’m hard pressed to call them complete.

The volume slider in the menubar is now horizontal. The reason is because it is also shows output devices in the same list so it gives quick access to Bluetooth headphones or the living room Apple TV. This is fine and the change is well-motivated once Apple’s new AirPods wireless earbuds ship.

It’s not buggy, the volume will change when you drag it, but it isn’t ‘done’. Note how the selected audio output is indicated by a checkmark. When there’s no AirPlay outputs, the view adapts just to show the slider and nothing else. Disappointingly, the view doesn’t collapse the inset for the checkmark that is no longer visible, so the volume bar is off-centre. Not off by a couple of pixels, off by a lot: the left gap is almost twice as wide as the right gap. Someone said this was ready to ship and it’s clearly wrong. I noticed the misalignment within hours of installing the update.

Another example is Siri, marketed by Apple as the single biggest new feature of Sierra. Does it work? Yes. You can dictate queries and returns responses inline to the popover panel. It doesn’t feel finished, though. I found multiple things ‘wrong’ just with the Help screen (press the little question mark); the subtitle font is tiny and the (lack of) contrast makes the subtitles hard to read; the detail views will push without releasing to confirm the click; errant padding at the bottom of most of the suggestions and the back button is styled so discreetly you can’t see when it appears1.

I’ve barely used macOS Siri and I already have a list of niggles and unfinished edges. I’m even ignoring things that are potentially debatable and just focusing on things that are unequivocally wrong. Even if you discount that stuff, there’s still the major gaps in functionality to consider like the lack of any third-party app integration into Siri on the Mac despite heralding a Siri SDK for iOS 10 as a flagship feature.

I can’t get Universal Clipboard to work, full stop. I copy a string of text on my Mac. I press Paste on my iPhone. Several seconds pass, and nothing happens. If I go the other way, the Copy command freezes my phone for multiple seconds and the laptop Ctrl+V freezes my Mac for multiple seconds. In both cases, no data ends up getting pasted at the destination. The seconds of waiting seems like it knows it wants to transfer some data but it is yet to succeed.

There is nowhere to check Universal Clipboard connectivity so I’m basically left in the dark about how to fix this because it fails silently. If it was done properly, it would flag up a ‘Universal Clipboard Failed’ alert with details of the error. As it is, I have no recourse apart from crossing my fingers and hoping it sorts itself out. I have verified that the devices are connected to each other over Bluetooth as I still get Handoff suggestions to continue application activities. Until it randomly starts working, copy and paste is simply broken on my devices. Even if it was doing what it is supposed to, I’d still have complaints about its design.

My biggest frustration is the Sierra’s Messages app. It supports so few of the new features in iOS 10. Most of my communications in Messages on the Mac are to people using iOS devices. Screen and bubble effects ungracefully fallback to a ‘(Sent with Lasers)’ message. If people send stickers to me, my conversation is gimped on macOS by gigantic images as the app can’t understand how to position them. Other iMessage apps just won’t work at all.

I expected iMessage apps not to work outside of iOS because they are iOS extension binaries. I expected stickers to be viewable, with the correct placement and scale. I expected all the new iOS 10 bubble effects to be sendable from the Mac and receivable on the Mac.

Messages on the Mac exists to continue conversations that take place on my iPhone. Now, Apple’s brand-new proprietary fancy adornments are completely unsupported by one of their operating systems. The fact they don’t is — honestly — deplorable. Cross-platform integration is a central benefit to Apple’s ecosystem and they are letting themselves down.

For reasons unexplained, there is one supported bubble effect implemented on macOS — Invisible Ink. One out of ten, right? No. The macOS version is so much worse. It looks like a snow globe from Windows 1998 with large pixels and a strange dispersion effect, like blocky particles are blowing in a gust of wind. It also naively covers the entire bubble like a dust sheet whereas the iOS implementation has the particles gently emanating over just the textual content. On iOS, you can almost see the shapes of the words behind the particles.

It’s difficult to convey the difference from static screenshots: look at Messages on Mac and iPhone side-by-side in real life and it’s easy to spot which is nicer. The Mac effect is embarrassingly mediocre and pales in comparison to the high-res fidelity of the iOS effect. The iPhone and iPad animation is so much more refined and so much more beautiful.

This might be the best argument yet for Apple merging the development environments of iOS and OS X. Right now, they have to make everything twice and they clearly didn’t have the development resources to do the macOS implementation justice.

My excitement about installing Sierra quickly changed to disappointment. This is an abridged list of such complaints where stuff consistently falls below my expectations for Apple software. I always have niggles to discuss but it is different with Sierra. This year, it is way more severe.

Maybe they were strained on engineering, maybe resources had to be reassigned, maybe Apple’s new reaffirmed focus on software quality has put more priority on not having things crash and consequently time spent on actual feature development and design QA is more limited. Regardless of the real reason, it gives the impression that Apple doesn’t care anymore about the platform. I hope that isn’t the case, I love the Mac, but that’s how it feels.

1 Intuitively, I thought a left arrow keyboard press should perform the same backward navigation. Alas, it doesn’t.