When Good Apps Go BadS

In just a few short years we've almost forgotten the concept of "saving" a document. Close an app? It's just there. Until it isn't.

I just got back from a manic 48-hour mental assault to pick up the used Land Cruiser I'll be driving up and down the hemisphere next summer. (More on that later!) It was a last-second decision with little room for luggage, so I didn't even take my iPad—just my trusty Apple Bluetooth Keyboard.

A few hours later, smokily ensconced in a Motel 6, I leaned over the Elements text editor app I've been using on both my iPhone and iPad lately. It syncs up with Dropbox, making it—in theory—impervious to accidental deletes, even if you lose your phone. To never worry about losing files is a writer's dream.

I had my contacts out soaking, so even leaned over the screen with the text jacked all the way to Old Man 24 Point and even then I could barely make it out. It turned out to be a nice way to write, less focused on the screen than...anyway, you get the idea. I poured a nice little bit of words about Montana, the road, and letting things go onto the phone. I was pretty pleased to send it out so anyone who was interested could read it, especially those of you who sent me well wishes and advice.

I attached it to an email, waiting for the trademark iPhone whoooosh. I didn't hear it, but I was on a crappy Edge connection, so I just set it aside and passed right out.

The next day Joe Brown texted me to check in and I asked him if he'd posted the story yet. "I didn't get anything," he texted back. Stupid Mail.app, I thought.

But when I went back into Elements and saw just a couple of lines at the top—notes I had added hours before I wrote the story about an asshole hotel operator in Oregon—my heart sank. Maybe it was in Dropbox? Nope. Same version. (I later checked when I got home to see if Dropbox had cached a previous version. No dice.)

I went through every setting I could find in Elements hoping there was some sort of version control within the app. No dice. 800 words of confidence-restoring road diary gone. And not even a filesystem to check.

I don't want to rail too hard on Elements. I sent a support email noting the bug—"Your app ate my story :("—and I'm sure the developer will fix it soon. Mistakes happen.

But there was a particular feeling of helplessness when the computer that I rely on to just work just didn't. When a computer application crashes and loses your work, there's a little part of yourself you can blame. I should have saved. When an app that doesn't even have the option of saving—nor a local filesystem to work with even if you wanted to—it can leave you feeling stranded. With a closed system like the iPhone, the only options I had besides hoping-and-praying were hyper-technical attempts to dig through an image of the phone's flash memory for a previous state or some other fantasy that's completely beyond my ken in the first place.

One of the things that the closed iPhone makes possible is a certain level of bullet-proofing against bugs and errors. Not that it's bug-free—it's still software made by humans driven by a dying martinet—but some of the complicating factors have been smoothed out by stricture.

It's why I love the iPhone and its attendant software. It feels more tangible than most software, not just physically, but in responsiveness and persistence. I like not thinking about saving.

But the other side of that knife is that when an app dies, loses your data, you're really just out of luck. There's no troubleshooting, no rip-off $50 data recovery indulgence, no asking a smarter friend to make the bad bug go away.

So I guess if I'm writing to anyone, it's not to other users, but to the developers of those apps you're asking us to trust. If you're writing software we're being trained to treat as omnipotent, the margin for error is quickly diminishing.