Article: iOS Updates and a Slippery Slope

by on May 26, 2011

Although we looked at a similar issue a few months back, the rumor that the iPhone 3GS may be left off of iOS 5 is a bad thing for a couple of reasons. Although the hardware itself dates back to about two years ago, it’s still being sold today, which could end up being a public relations mess.

I think most iPhone 3GS users won’t care about most new features in iOS 5, and there has to be a point that Apple abandons the old hardware. Unfortunately, unlike computers, phones are something that are bought at a subsidized price and then kept for the duration of a contract or longer. The only time we see this with computers tends to be for large institutional contracts. Still, lack of feature updates aren’t the issue…it’s security.

I think that for the average user who wants a basic iPhone, the 3GS is a pretty good piece of hardware. It gets you into Apple’s ecosystem and is very affordable at $49 with a new contract. Unfortunately, that means that unless you do something out of the ordinary (early upgrades, outright buy something new), you’re stuck with it for about another two years. This means that someone buying an iPhone 3GS today would probably have it in the later days of iOS 6 (if Apple followed their yearly timeline for iOS updates). By then the iPhone 4 should probably be long forgotten, too.

Although we can’t expect Apple to provide new operating systems that run on old hardware, there is some level of support they should provide at least for security purposes. There are a number of iPhone 3G users still under contract for about another year or so, yet they can look forward to being left out any critical security updates, such as the location cache issue. Clearly, this won’t sit well with a number of users, especially those who aren’t tech savvy enough to understand poor news reporting on tech issues.

So, what’s the solution?

Apple could go the lowest-common-denominator route and simply provide every feature to every phone for at least two years after a phone was last sold (so that even the last person to buy one new would be supported for the length of a typical contract or an AppleCare coverage plan). While this sounds pretty good, running iOS 4 on an iPhone 3G has proven that some gadgets must be left behind. The hardware may just be simply too weak to perform.

This is kind of like the model Apple users for Macs. Most machines are supported for a certain number of years, usually due to architecture. The things that may knock a Mac out of getting a new OS is usually the processor (in the case of Leopard and possibly Lion) or the processor and architecture (in the case of Snow Leopard). That being said, Apple still provides some minor bugfixes, security updates, and some support for older version of the OS—I know someone running Leopard on a 8-year-old Power Mac G4 and Software Update still finds things on a regular basis.

But iPhones (and other iDevices) are replaced more frequently, due to wear, hardware features, or new contracts. In this case, Apple should try to set a certain number of years to cover a device and then move on. It may be a hardware limitation, or it may be arbitrary, but new features are going to be the thing that sells more iDevices. Therefore, I’m proposing another solution.

Apple should keep updating older versions of the iOS for a certain number of years—at least for security issues. Although this means that someone at Cupertino would have to dig up and work with old code every now and then, this could at least spread some goodwill towards users who may be soon in the market for a new product. They wouldn’t want users to switch to another platform with their next purchase, would they?

In a perfect world, let’s back up to June 2010. Apple announces iOS 4 alongside the iPhone 4. It’ll run on the iPhone 3GS, iPhone 4, and contemporary iPod touches. Let’s say they did not support the original iPhone or the iPhone 3G at launch. This would’ve saved the headaches of users complaining about the 3G’s poor performance. Then the location cache bug rears its ugly head. The iPhone 3GS and 4 would get 4.3.3, while the iPhone 3G would get a hypothetical 3.1.4 (3.2 was iPad-only) update that only fixes that issue. It’s not the best solution, but saying, “Hey, you may be stuck with old hardware, but we still will take care of you to an extent,” means a lot to end users.

Right now, the iPad is the big question mark with all of this. As it is more expensive than an iPhone (at least when compared to subsidized pricing) and almost more like a computer, I doubt users will be as eager to replace it as often, so that should be interesting to see when Apple drops support for the original iPad.

We have a few weeks until WWDC and we learn about iOS 5, but I’m really hoping that this rumor is untrue—and I don’t even have an iPhone 3GS.

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