Apple gets with the wireless revolution

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Apple’s latest transformation is complete. By delivering its first firmware over-the-air (FOTA) iOS 5 beta update in July, Apple has begun to free its wireless consumers from being tethered to a PC or Mac to receive firmware updates. And now that Apple has done it, most mobile consumers will understand the joys of wireless updates.

While Apple is just the latest of many mobile device manufacturers to use wireless updates, the company’s reputation for developing innovative products and its “celebrity cachet” are shining a well-deserved spotlight on FOTA technology and the value it delivers to consumers. Media that had never reported on over-the-air software updating suddenly are talking about Apple and FOTA, and the benefits consumers can expect. Eliminating the cable gives consumers an easier and faster process to keep their iPhones up to date with the latest features and performance improvements.

A quick history of wireless updates.

Most mobile OEMs, including LG, Motorola, NEC, Nokia, Samsung, RIM, SEMC and Sharp, have been providing consumers with FOTA-enabled devices, many since the mid-2000s. Those companies as well as most of the world’s largest mobile operators deliver wireless updates to not just phones but to myriad types of connected mobile devices ranging from tablets to USB modems. Symbian was the first smartphone OS to support such updates, with OEMs such as Nokia, SEMC and Sharp introducing some of the earliest FOTA-enabled mobile phones. The majority of Android consumers get their firmware updates over the air, and now, Apple consumers will too.

Here’s what they can look forward to:

  • Saved bandwidth. Over-the-air update files are small (only the changes between the current and new versions of software are sent) so consumers (and operators) won’t utilize bandwidth unnecessarily. For example, Apple’s iOS 5 beta FOTA update was just 133 MB, compared to the hefty 824 MB original .ipsw file that would have been sent via a cabled update to overwrite the device firmware. This is especially important for consumers with monthly data usage caps, although some operators don’t count FOTA updates against users’ data limits. Updates also can be done over Wi-Fi, avoiding the mobile network entirely.
  • Saved time. A small update file downloads more quickly and takes less time to complete the update process. This means less time that the phone is offline. A typical FOTA update can take 15 minutes, depending in part on the number of changes being made to the firmware. Advanced FOTA techniques perform the update in the background, so consumers can continue using the full functionality of their phone while the update is taking place.
  • Added convenience. Wired updates tie the user to a computer. FOTA updates can take place wherever the consumer is and be installed whenever the user chooses.
  • Improved reliability. Wireless updating is a highly reliable process that has become as common as making a mobile phone call or sending a text. The process doesn’t affect a consumer’s personal data stored on the device. In addition, if the device battery is low, the FOTA update either won’t begin or will stop when the battery is exhausted and resume when the device is recharged or connected to power.
  • Greater satisfaction. FOTA enables OEMs and operators to keep consumers happy with their phones by delivering more frequent and timely updates to users’ devices. When users see the value of those new features and performance improvements, they are eager to receive and install updates, which increases consumer satisfaction with the device.

In addition to the consumer benefits, Apple will realize some significant business benefits to adopting FOTA. Other OEMs that use the technique have reduced customer care expenses and have avoided warranty costs and brand damage from product recalls. In addition, Apple’s application developer ecosystem may find that more of Apple’s installed base reaches a common iOS version sooner.

Wireless updates are one of those capabilities that just makes sense, and once you have it, you smile thinking about how arcane the old wired process was. With Apple now adopting FOTA, we can say cable-based updating is another technology being retired to the “Mobile Museum.”

Morten Grauballe is executive vice president of products and strategy for Red Bend Software.

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