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Apple Will Do OTA Updates — But Only If These Conditions Are Met

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Apple (s aapl) is rumored to be prepping over-the-air (OTA) iOS updates, according to a report by 9t05Mac late Wednesday. Citing multiple sources, the site reports the feature will debut in iOS 5, meaning all updates that follow will be available OTA. No doubt Apple is prepping this capability, but we won’t see it until certain criteria are met.

9to5Mac suggests that OTA updates, along with iOS 5, will arrive this fall, but Apple may not have ultimate control over when this change occurs. Here’s what has to happen before Apple will implement OTA updates for the general public:

  1. The process has to be foolproof. Apple can’t afford to go with an update process that bricks a user’s phone every time they pass a tunnel or momentarily drop a connection or receive a call. Any OTA update process has to have multiple redundancies in place, and a solid backup process that ensures no data loss is possible even in the case of catastrophic failure. Apple would never offer up an update experience like that faced by some Windows 7 phone owners (s msft), for instance.
  2. File size needs to be reduced. The update that arrived for iPhones yesterday (4.3.3) weighed in at over 600 MB. Even putting aside concerns surrounding bandwidth limitations (which are considerable), updates this size just aren’t practical for true OTA updates. They’ll take too long to download to a mobile device, dragging out the install process. Smaller, incremental updates like those served to Android might be the way to go, but that would require a significant change in the way Apple approaches updates — one that can’t be done overnight.
  3. Maximum user control, but minimum user involvement. iOS is often described as the pretty, popular alternative to Android’s geekier, less sparkly counterpart. That’s because it’s easier to pick up and use for a wide variety of people from different technical backgrounds, whereas Android is a little more complex (and a lot more customizable as a result). The OTA update process for iOS has to fit with its user-friendly design, by allowing users to choose when they can update and then getting out of the way, but also by letting users feel in control of the whole process. If OTA updates threaten to make iOS devices more frustrating for the average user, Apple will balk at the idea.
  4. 100-percent carrier cooperation. If OTA updates puts Apple at the mercy of carrier whim as to when to push out the software changes, Apple won’t offer them. 9t05Mac says Apple has been in negotiations with Verizon (s vz) since early this year in order to reach an agreement regarding wireless updates. I’m willing to bet that Apple is taking the position that until it can get all carriers on board (at least in the U.S.) with simultaneous iOS updates, it’ll delay the feature’s release.
Would OTA updates for iOS be great for consumers? Yes, at the very least because it would reduce the dependence of iOS devices on computers, making them more like true, standalone, post-PC devices. But it’s only good if it works consistently, easily and without causing additional frustration among even the most easily frustrated users. Apple has yet to release a feature or product because it’s what competitors are doing, or what analysts expect. Wireless updates are no exception.

16 Responses to “Apple Will Do OTA Updates — But Only If These Conditions Are Met”

  1. OTA updates?? Howabout having the download at least check itself for consistancy at several points rather tahn downloading 600MB then telling me its corrupt, please try again. I only have 20GB/Month cap on my account!
    Howabout wireless media synch first? The only thing I doc my phone an dipad for i backups and media synch. Bookmarks – xmarks, PIM – active synch, books – kindle whispersync and Stanza attaches to my calibre server. I can email or download pdfs to iBooks, Photos – uploaded to picasa or facebook, notes – simple notes, other files – drop box, RSS Feeds – reeder synchs with Google News, everything Apple provides – have to fucking attach a cable and sync to my mac!

  2. Hamrenhansenhansen

    > File size needs to be reduced.

    That is easy. The reason the updates are large now is that they are the complete system. What you download is equivalent to the Mac OS DVD, not a Mac OS patcher. You can Restore the phone with it. A patcher would be much smaller.

  3. Ted T.

    Why are people so obsessed with OTA iOS updates? Other than “Android has it so we want it” I just can’t figure it out.

    Everyone who has and iPhone and a WiFi network but no computer, please raise their hand.

    Anyone? Buller? Anyone?

    That’s what I thought.

    • Smerk

      I Am. A Lot.
      OTA Backup, Sync and Update would mean a great deal to me, as I travel with Pad only for extended periods. At the moment, I am installing iTunes on Colleagues and friends PCs (hardly a chivalrous act, I know) and backing up to a USB drive, and THEN syncing to Dropbox if and when I have time. This setup sucks. The iPads reduced size and increased battery life make up for it’s shortcomings, but it makes it much less of a slam dunk proposition.

  4. PhillyG

    D’oh! I forgot: 3G and wifi are not measured in minutes or hours, they are measured in megabytes and gigabytes. I believe AT&T currently charges $10/Gigabyte for 3G. Wanna pay to backup your 64 gigabytes once a month using 3G? your 16GB?

  5. PhillyG

    This article omitted some technical conditions:

    1) iOS currently performs a full backup before upgrading. OTA upgrades will require a cloud backup, Back to My Mac, or some other OTA backup scheme. This could double your bandwidth estimates if you forgot about it. Performing a wifi upgrade at home would pose minimal problems, a 3G backup in Drop Call City is a different story.

    2) iOS currently requires an uninterrupted install. Even a wifi backup at home would require a certain minimum amount of battery juice. The advantages of a wifi backup would be partially negated by a requirement to plug your device into an electrical outlet.

    3) If Apple wants to reduce the size of the upgrade using compression, then upgrades will have to be packaged as self extracting files. On the other hand, compression is a CPU intensive (read battery draining) process.

    4) The configuration management functions currently performed by iTunes will have to be moved to the cloud for PC-less upgrades. The iTunes interface will have to be redesigned for an iPhone sized touch screen.

    5) Cost: In a competitive environment, one might imagine carriers providing free hours for 3G upgrades. It could happen, right? Say, once a month, right? Another possibility is that competition between carriers could evolve into an oligopoly. Should we take a poll on which of these two possibilities is more likely in your country?

  6. Wi-Fi is the logical first step in OTA upgrades. No carrier burden, or agreement required. Much faster than 3G/4G would be. No need to change the upgrade payload. Overall improvement for users with fewer technical, or business challenges (compared to 3G/4G).

  7. InfidelCastro

    This has been answered in the comments (but should have been in the article). WiFi only. Simple. The networks won’t allow it and downloads of this size (or even smaller) would eat into people’s data allowance. And why is there no mention of the affect this will have on battery life?

  8. KsbjA

    Agreed. But maybe they could go the middle way with WiFi-only updates, fixing part of the fool-proof-ness problem and the file size problem. Carriers would like this as well, as that wouldn’t put such a strain on their 3G networks.

  9. This is silly. Why not just have OTA WIFI updates? This avoids ALL the problems listed above. Its also completely silly that Apple does not yet have this, plus Apple then controls the whole process.

    • Wi-FI OTA could resolve some of these issues, but not all. It still would be a time consuming process, and it would still be hard to guarantee a solid user experience. Wi-Fi only updates is a definite possibility as a workaround to carrier updates, but Apple is said to be talking to carriers, and it is probably at least considering doing wireless broadband updates, too.

      • Michael Long

        Don’t see the main problem. Download the WiFi OTA update in the background, and only tell the user when it’s completely downloaded and ready to install. Heck, the desktop already does this.