Editor’s desk: Bad firmware updates, Catalina fallout, and app subscription woes

AirPods Pro

In this week’s editor’s desk I discuss Apple’s recent firmware upgrade to AirPods Pro and what happens when things go wrong. I also look at the continuing fallout from Catalina’s release, and I plea with app makers to rethink how they’re getting paid these days.

When firmware updates go wrong

Apple periodically pushes new firmware updates to its devices over the air, and for the most part these updates are helpful, or benign at worst. But a recent firmware update to AirPods Pro has worsened the wireless earbuds’ noise-cancelling abilities while apparently enhancing other aspects of their operation, including better frequency response and bass accuracy.

After some back chatter on social media it appears that Apple has pulled the firmware update from circulation, an implicit acknowledgement that something ain’t right with the new update. Many folks, including us at iDB, noticed the changes, though it wasn’t exactly clear what had changed.

That’s because the AirPods and AirPods Pros don’t have an independent user interface of their own, so their updates are delivered by stealth – you really don’t have any direct control over if or when the updates will occur. Instead, they get pushed out by Apple as needed. You just have to assume that the mechanisms that take of the updates work in the background as they’re supposed to. You can check your firmware version, if it makes you happy, but that’s about it.

TIP: How to find out your AirPods firmware version

For a company that prides itself on transparency and providing the user with ultimate control over how data is shared, Apple still too often takes a “don’t worry your pretty little head about it” attitude towards routine maintenance, pushing users towards uniform updates and upgrades to new products whenever possible.

That relentless march towards progress has paid off well for Apple when it comes to measurements like platform fragmentation. We’ve read for years that Apple users upgrade to new versions of operating systems with much greater frequency and in much greater percentages than Android users do.

Another Catalina casuality

On the other hand, sometimes nudging people in that direction can have dire consequences. I’m thinking of the upgrades that some Mac users have made to 10.15 Catalina, only to discover apps that don’t work right.

Apple put Mac users and app developers on notice two years ago when warnings started popping up advising them that apps which haven’t been upgraded to 64-bit memory addressing would stop working. Many apps have been upgraded, of course, but there are still a few holdouts.

One more that we found out about this past week is AccountEdge, a small business accounting software package on the Mac which has been around for years. AccountEdge’s developers announced this past week that their app will simply never work on Catalina. They recommend that users stick with Mojave if they want to keep using AccountEdge. Those interested in Catalina must either migrate to AccountEdge’s subscription-based web service, or run a virtualized Mac operating system instance with an older version macOS installed.

This is actually one of those cases where a dual-boot Mac might work too:

TIP: How to run Catalina and Mojave on the same Mac

AccountEdge’s code base is three decades old and its developers have had years to rewrite whatever core technology won’t make the cut. I have very little sympathy for them, especially as their upgrade path is to push people towards a subscription-based service, and I have my own strong feelings about those.

Give me a break with subscriptions

Lately I’ve begun to feel like I’m being slowly bled to death by an increasing number of apps that demand subscriptions even though they don’t deserve it.

I’m ordinarily very reluctant to pay a subscription fee for an app unless I know I’m going to use it. And typically, the only way I know that is if I’ve used it for a while – typically because I paid for a perpetual license for it as some point in the past and found the app to be indispensable.

This chicken and egg problem means that I often terminate with extreme prejudice any app that offers a very limited trial period before invoking a monthly or annual subscription fee. Or apps that provide me with limited utility which I might use a few times, but not something that’s going to be incorporated into my workflow on a daily basis.

I apply different expectations to apps than I do for services, for example. I have no compunction, for example, about forking over fees for Apple Music, Netflix, or even a cloud-based backup. But if it’s weeks or sometimes months before I open an app, why should I be expected to pay a continuous fee to use it?

I understand why subscriptions have been appearing in earnest in the App Store, ever since Apple pushed the idea to app developers a few years ago. But the fact is that only a few apps at the very top of the food chain appear to really benefiting from the subscription model, while independent developers continue to struggle, just as they have for years.

The more things change, the more they stay the same.

The bottom line is that I don’t want to feel taken advantage of – too often, I feel like the way subscriptions are being used by developers these days does exactly that.

What say you? Are you tired of app subscriptions? Have you gotten burned with an unintended upgrade, like AirPods Pro firmware or an OS update? Sound off in the comments and let me know what you think.