Opinion: Apple needs to modernize its antiquated annual app update routine

iOS 12
Brenda Stolyar/Digital Trends

While there are many things that set the two biggest mobile operating systems apart, something that’s often overlooked is the difference in Apple’s approach to system-level apps like Mail, Messages, and Photos compared to Google’s. When Apple updates iOS every year, it tends to cram everything in together, and much of what it highlights are app updates. By contrast, Google updates its major apps individually in a piecemeal fashion year-round.

If we look at the best features in iOS 12, we find group chat added to FaceTime, Animojis and other effects added to iMessage, a Maps app redesign, and updates to the Photo app, Voice Memos, Apple Books, and more. There are system-level upgrades in there too, like grouped notifications and better performance, but look at the last Android update and you’ll see it’s almost completely focused on those system-level features.

Google has broken its apps out of the Android operating system and updates them independently, frequently rolling new features into Google Maps, Chrome, Gmail, Google Photos, and many others. This is partly driven by Android fragmentation, as Google tries to find ways to bypass carriers and manufacturers dragging their feet with software updates to the main OS, but that’s not the whole story.

Why does Apple do it this way?

Apple likes to put on a show. The big annual event has been a mainstay of Apple’s mobile approach, though its roots go back further. Apple has been holding its annual WWDC developer conference since 1987, bolstered by special events for hardware unveilings. Steve Jobs understood the importance of showmanship and Apple has always been comfortable blowing its own trumpet, whereas Google’s approach is quiet and unassuming – it often releases app updates with a simple blog post.

why does apple only update apps annually tim cook wwdc 2018 1

Because Apple makes the hardware and the software, there are no barriers to it creating close ties between apps and the OS. It is often suggested that this allows for greater speed and efficiency, so they work more smoothly together. This is true of the relationship between hardware and software, which is why Google has taken that direction with its Pixel phones, but it’s not necessarily true with apps and the OS. There are some definite disadvantages, which we’ll get to in a minute.

When Apple updates iOS every year, it tends to cram everything in together and much of what it highlights is app updates.

You could also make an argument that Apple does it this way because it wants to force you to use its own apps. It doesn’t really want you using Google Maps instead of its own Maps app. Although you can delete many built-in Apple apps now – a feature that was much requested for years before it arrived — any replacements you employ will not enjoy the same level of integration with Siri and other system settings.

Another reason Apple bundles everything into an annual update is because that’s the way it has always been done. Software developers have traditionally packaged together all sorts of features into one big build, but tradition is a terrible reason to keep doing something the same way – progress relies on change.

We reached out to Apple for comment on this story, but Apple has yet to respond.

We should note, Apple occasionally (and we mean rarely) does introduce new features outside of the big OS update, such as when it debuted new features for its Clips app after the release of the iPhone X.

Is Apple’s approach antiquated?

If we view this briefly from a software development perspective, there’s no doubt we have moved collectively away from annual updates to continuous integration and delivery. The idea is we can integrate feedback and speed up improvement by making small, frequent changes. Tight coupling in software is unfashionable nowadays as everyone seems to be pursuing a modular approach that’s more flexible, scalable, and secure.

For the smartphone-toting public, it’s difficult to see how bundling updates is advantageous. Isn’t it better if new features, bug fixes, and improvements can be rolled out swiftly and independently into apps, instead of requiring a platform update? Now that you can delete and reinstall superfluous apps like Stocks, why aren’t they updated separately from iOS?

how to block calls on an apple iphone update ios 2

The rush to hit one big deadline and integrate, then properly test all the code from a disparate group of teams working on different apps can and does lead to problems. Serious bugs have been creeping into iOS more frequently in recent years. But if teams miss their deadline, they face the prospect of waiting a whole year to push out what they’ve been working on – no wonder they’re tempted to rush.

Serious bugs have been creeping into iOS more frequently in recent years.

Take a look at group Facetime, for example. It’s now being delayed for another version of iOS 12 (presumably iOS 12.1), but if Apple issued app updates regularly, the FaceTime team could simply push the feature out when it’s ready.

This bundling approach makes it harder to fix flaws, and there’s a risk that a rushed patch will introduce yet more bugs. It’s a lot of pressure to put on developers and that’s rarely conducive to quality – though Jobs would obviously disagree. He always ostensibly pushed for the impossible and often achieved it, through what biographer Walter Isaacson called his “reality distortion field.”

Perhaps the culture Jobs helped to build at Apple persists, but we’re getting back to tradition. Just because it has been done that way in the past doesn’t mean you should keep doing it that way. The balance between speed, features, and quality is a very tricky one to strike, and it’s impressive that Apple has managed it for such a long time, but there are signs that equilibrium may be slipping.

Is Google’s way better?

We’ve seen the arguments about the dangers of Android fragmentation many times and, while Google has tried to find ways to separate security patches and make them easier to apply, with some success, it would be fair to say that Apple devices are more likely to have the latest updates. What we rarely hear about in Android vs. iOS arguments is the impact of Google’s app updates for all Android users. When Google Maps gets a new feature – almost every Android device can immediately get that update.

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If Apple rolls a new feature into a core app, only devices with the latest version of iOS can get it. While Apple does enjoy a far higher adoption rate for updates, let’s remember that Apple does leave devices behind, and that’s a problem that will only grow over time.

Neither platform is perfect, but Google’s approach seems more in tune with modern software development thinking. It also brings new app features into the hands of people as soon as they’re ready – instead of on an arbitrary date every year – and it should mean fewer bugs because there isn’t the same pressure to rush to meet a specific deadline.

Ultimately, the proof is in the pudding and we’d argue Google’s suite of apps, such as Gmail, Maps, and Photos, are stronger than Apple’s equivalents. Apple has some work to do to hit the same standard with its core apps, and the annual update system may be one of the things that’s holding it back.

The views expressed here are solely those of the author and do not reflect the beliefs of Digital Trends.

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