Right now, updating your iPhone or iPad is like buying a newspaper. It’s a package deal: you take everything or walk away with nothing. You can’t go to a newsagent and only pay for the individual items you want.
Okay, maybe that’s an outdated analogy, but that’s kind of the point. Apple’s iOS updates are a comprehensive mix of system changes, top-level interface tweaks, and updates to specific pre-installed apps, and inevitably some elements are more important or relevant to a particular user than others. Individual app updates in particular are perfectly suited to a pick-and-mix approach, but it doesn’t work that way. For example, if you want the Mail update, you need to download iOS 16.
Make the changes to Messages coming in iOS 16. Some long-awaited new features allow users to unsend a message after it’s been sent, or edit it to correct a typo. But beta testers quickly noticed that the feature won’t work if the recipient isn’t also running iOS 16. If the sender uses the first beta, the edit function does nothing; with the second it sends the edited version as a new message and does nothing about the original. It may change again in future betas, but the message is clear: Download iOS 16.
iPhone users are generally dutiful to install updates in a timely manner, and in the fall there will be a large number of iOS 16 devices. But not every iPhone can run iOS 16; in fact, all of this year’s Apple OS updates have been unusually relentless in dropping support for older hardware. If your friend owns an iPhone 7, he or she is doomed to miss out on the new Messages features, and for now, that means you’ll miss out on the full experience, too.
Hardware compatibility is a complex subject, and I can’t say for sure that iMessage editing is the last straw for the iPhone 7. But I doubt it. Compatibility depends on whether your hardware is capable of running all (or nearly all) of the individual components of an update, meaning many devices will miss the package because one component is too demanding for their iPhones, while another. would have been good. To return to our original analogy, it’s like giving a newspaper a minimum reading age because it may contain wartime graphic photography and then refuse to sell the comics individually.
This is a very blunt approach to a complex situation.
Give it a chance little by little
Apple already makes some exceptions to the package approach. For example, security updates are considered too important to keep from older devices, and we regularly report that Apple has released a patch for an earlier version of macOS or iOS. The company recognizes that setting general hardware compatibility requirements isn’t fair or efficient for security, but there are many more cases where a piecemeal approach would help.
Aside from giving older devices access to individual features or tweaks they would otherwise miss, updating apps individually would make the whole process much more flexible. Right now, almost all major (pre-installed) iPhone app updates are tied to the iOS fixed calendar, with announcing at WWDC in the summer and rolling out in September. But it’s hard to believe that any new feature follows that exact pattern in terms of conception and scheduling, and you’d assume there’s been plenty of new features sitting in Craig Federighi’s inbox for months, waiting for WWDC to be “allowed”. revealed.
Cut individual apps from the iOS apron strings and they can push updates as and when it suits them. Users get new features in a timely manner, Apple gets to take another advantage of Android, and changes to individual apps get the attention they deserve rather than being buried or completely ignored amid the excitement of 50 other announcements. Apple is already doing this with apps like Pages and iMovie, and it’s time for the rest to come as iOS’ native apps.
Aside from the cynical argument that older devices lack nice features is good for encouraging new purchases, the only good counter argument I can think of is that updating multiple individual apps is more of a hassle and harder to remember to do, than alone. Update iOS and get all the good stuff as a bundle. I see the appeal of making the user experience as simple as possible, and it’s a very Apple approach to hide the complexity under the hood and assure the user that everything is taken care of.
But there’s also an easy way to approach the fragmented strategy, which is to encourage users to set app updates as automatic. That’s the method I use, and it would mean getting all the updates your device can support without worrying about the individual details.
After iOS 16, it’s time. Separating app updates from the main system is frictionless, but it’s also context-reactive. It would be like pouring liquid concrete into a pit instead of filling it with giant rocks. Or rip the stories you like out of a newspaper and not pay for the rest. And who didn’t want to do that?