iPhone Has a Killer Character Problem, and It’s Kicking Apple’s Brand

Apple has long had a reputation for great and dependable products, but reality is catching up to reputation.

If you have an iPhone, better be careful about any text your apps display. A new iOS bug discovered earlier this week by engineers at Aloha Browser will crash your Apple device, whether an iPhone, iPad, Mac, or Apple Watch, if the wrong character comes up on the screen.

This is just another hit to Apple’s perfect product image, one carefully cultivated over the years. (And a massive nuisance if the problem happens to you, of course.) The company has proved itself largely ineffectual when addressing bugs that become obvious and widely known.

From a consumer and customer view, this is a crazy problem. As TechCrunch reported, there are two non-English symbols that “can crash any Apple device that uses Apple’s default San Francisco font.” All that need happen is for an app to display one of the characters.

When one of the two symbols is displayed in an app, the software crashes immediately. In many cases, the app cannot be reopened and must be reinstalled. TechCrunch was able to recreate this behavior on two iPhones running an older version of iOS, one iPhone running iOS 11.2.5 and a MacBook Pro running High Sierra.

Some of the apps that have experienced the problem are Messages, Twitter, Mail, Facebook, and Chrome for the Mac.

Apple has told TechCrunch and others that a fix is on its way and that beta versions of iOS, tvOS, macOS, and watchOS already have been corrected.

What makes this sound so insane is that the problem is with Unicode characters. That’s a long-standing international standard for consistent representation of written languages. It’s saying that an Apple device could crash if you wanted it to do one of the most basic and universally supported tasks.

This isn’t the first time that something so seemingly simple could shut down Apple devices. According to the Verge, it’s the latest in a series of such problems.

  • In January, there was news that a single link could freeze an iPhone. Apple fixed the issue in iOS 11.2.5.
  • A video that lasted only a few seconds could bring down iPhones in 2016.
  • In 2015, a bit of text could crash iMessage.

A report last month said that Apple will put off new iOS features for now and focus instead on fixing bugs and improving reliability and performance.

Sounds like the company would do well with the same approach to macOS and watchOS at this point.

Bugs are inevitable in any serious software development. There are too many interactions, too much complexity, and too many ways in which people can use software. And most people recognize this.

Apple’s challenge is facing bugs in the context of a branding mythology of superiority and virtual infallibility that it has gone to great lengths to create and protect. In 2009, for example, there were accusations that Apple used legal maneuvers to prevent anyone from learning the full scope of problems with iPod batteries that allegedly could cause fires. At the time, Apple did not respond to the claims.

Apple faces the challenge of either living up to its own encouraged hype or finding a way to modify brand image and consumer expectations to keep with the realities of electronics and software design.

The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.

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