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

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.