On Over-the-Air iOS Updates (Or, How Android Users Live) | iLounge Backstage


On Over-the-Air iOS Updates (Or, How Android Users Live)

Every once in a while, a reader suggests that Apple should offer wireless, over-the-air updates for iPhones—new iOS versions pushed directly over the cellular network without any need for iTunes synchronization. Sounds great, right? No need for a pesky USB cable or computer running iTunes. It all “just happens” and “just works.” But in reality, despite Apple’s best intentions, it probably wouldn’t go that way.

Instead, picture this:

Apple announces the release of iOS 5, but instead of announcing a specific release date as it has done in the past, Steve Jobs gets up on stage and simply says something like, “iOS 5 will magically appear on your iPhone or iPad with 3G in the next few weeks.” He offers no release date, no specifics, just a generic “coming soon” statement.

Fast forward a few days. A handful of users report that they’ve just received the latest and greatest iOS 5 update. You try iTunes’ “Check for Updates” button, but are told that iOS 4.3.3 is the most current version. You shrug and assume that the iTunes servers are just busy and that it will show up soon.

Later that day, a friend shows you all of the new features in iOS 5 on his iPhone from the update he just received through iTunes. You rush home, plug in your iPhone, hit the “Check for Updates” button again, and get the same response: iOS 4.3.3 is current. So Apple’s servers must still be busy, you figure, grumbling in frustration. At this point, you decide to give up and try again tomorrow.

Then a week goes by, filled with repeated attempts to update your iPhone. iTunes continues to insist that you have the latest version available, despite the fact that it seems everybody around you already has the update and you’ve been left out in the cold. You do a bit of digging online and find a few blog posts and discussion forums with people who are having similar issues. You quickly discover that the problem is not that Apple’s servers are merely busy, but that Apple has decided to do a staggered rollout of iOS 5, and you simply have to assume that your device is not yet one of the “chosen” to receive the update.

Finally, perhaps two to three weeks later, after you’ve already given up in frustration, iTunes suddenly pops up a message letting you know that it’s your turn, and iOS 5 is now ready to download for your device.

If this seems absurd and impossible… it’s not. This is exactly how things work with Android. And it suggests just some of the sorts of challenges Apple would need to work around in order to wirelessly update iOS devices.

Leaving aside the obvious issues with different hardware platforms and carriers, when Google chooses to roll out an update even to its own “chosen” Nexus reference device the process is an indeterminate and frustrating mess. Specific release dates are almost never announced in advance, leaving things vague. Meanwhile, discussion groups fill up with frustrated comments wondering when their specific device is going to receive the update. When someone from Google does surface to respond, it’s usually on the day that the rollout has begun, stating that the release is in the process of being rolled out and everybody should be getting it “in the next few days or weeks.”

Eventually, somebody posts a manual link to download the firmware for users who have grown tired of waiting for their device to become one of the “chosen” to receive the over-the-air (OTA) update. Since Google doesn’t provide this link itself, users question whether what they’re getting is really the actual and proper OS update, particularly in the Android world where modified ROMs and firmware packages are commonplace.

Getting the latest Android OS update is pretty much a game of “hurry up and wait” — even among users of the exact same hardware.

The problem is even further exacerbated by the fact that there are multiple versions of the Nexus S (and Nexus One) available, and it seems that the AWS version (for T-Mobile US, Wind Canada, and Mobilicity Canada) always receives the update weeks before the other GSM version used by major carriers AT&T, Rogers, Bell and Telus. This happened last year with the Nexus One and is now happening again with the Nexus S. While it’s reasonable to accept that there are subtle hardware differences between the two models, and that Google may want to roll out the software to smaller players before doing so with a larger user base, this distinction is lost on most end users. A GSM phone should be a GSM phone. An update should be an update for everyone. Right?

Yes, you could applaud Google for getting updates out as soon as it can, but it would probably create far less user frustration for Google to release an update when it’s ready for everybody, and then to actually release it for everybody at the same time rather than staggering wireless distributions. This leaves users wondering what day their devices will finally be chosen by Google. Of course, coordinating a simultaneous launch to update everyone at once would be challenging, and arguably perceived as more of a marketing or PR move than technically necessary for a software rollout. Google is a company run by engineers. And like many other engineering-driven companies, it doesn’t properly consider the social aspect—how left-out, frustrated users might feel over a period of days or weeks—and over time, those sorts of feelings lead to defections. Probably to the iPhone.

To be fair, the typical Android or iOS user may not pay much attention to upgrades, and therefore might just be pleasantly surprised when a new update does appear. For the power user, however, the “when am I getting this?” situation can be frustrating, and lends credence to the idea that Android remains a platform for the nerd-slash-developer crowd. Should Apple offer iOS users wireless, over-the-air updates? Only if and when it has solved the distribution problems Google and others appear not to fully understand or care about. By pushing upgrades through iTunes to almost all of its iOS devices at the same time, it’s already doing better by users than supposedly more advanced competitors. My guess is that it won’t abandon a model that works until it has something that works better for everyone.

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The situation you describe is why apple is probably not going to allow OTA updates from the carriers.  But, what they can and should allow is for me to download the update via wifi instead of having to plug into my computer for iTunes to sync.

Posted by Dan hamilton on May 19, 2011 at 12:52 PM (CDT)


Unlike iOS, Android updates are subject to the control of the carrier, and not just Google. Apple could simply 1 have an available by date, rolling out updates before then, and 2 have an immediate wifi download when updates start rolling out, for anyone on a wifi connection. Finally what makes you think they would get rid of updates being also available when you iTunes sync?

Posted by mainmac on May 19, 2011 at 1:03 PM (CDT)


The OTA update process does not have to be carrier-driven. Even if it passes over the carrier’s 3G network, the updates would still come from Apple’s servers in the same way that App Store updates do.

In fact, as the official Google devices, carriers have nothing to do with the OTA distribution of updates for the Nexus One and the Nexus S. This is actually the main selling point of the Nexus lineup—a “pure Google” experience with no carrier or manufacturer bloatware added in.

Despite this, however, Google chooses to roll out the updates in a staggered fashion.  It’s unclear why Google takes this approach, but one is left to assume that it’s simply a question of balancing out the server and network load so that thousands of devices aren’t trying to update at the same time.

Further, I have no doubt that when Apple goes to an OTA system that iTunes USB update method could still exist.  However, an OTA approach that doesn’t work and/or frustrates users is not Apple’s style—there’s no point in creating an OTA solution that just drives most users back to their computer for the update anyway.

Posted by Jesse Hollington in Toronto on May 19, 2011 at 1:30 PM (CDT)


this is a very very dumb article. Apple of course could use BOTH pushed OTA and manual wired sync software update methods. so people in a hurry could still sync ASAP as now. power users could still backup and organize their iOS sync details via iTunes as now.

Google cannot do this because Android does not have desktop client software like iTunes at all. duh ...

the big advantage of OTA auto updates for iOS will be for people who have no computer, or never adjust any default settings, or are totally clueless with them. Grandma and so on. and the potential “grandma market” segment is pretty big too, especially for iPads. it would help for them especially if the initial setup of accounts and so on could all be done without a computer. i’m sure there’ll be an “app for that” ... (“Setup”).

Posted by AlfieJr on May 19, 2011 at 2:21 PM (CDT)


Wait a minute.  Apple releases 4.3.3 version for iPhone.  I go home and plug in my Verizon iPhone hoping to finally receive the 4.3.x version.  I wait.  I check again the next day.  No update.  I check again.  Still no update.  Here I am a Verizon user still without 4.3.3 update.

Getting the latest Apple OS update is pretty much a game of “hurry up and wait” for Verizon users — even though we have the exact same hardware vendor as AT&T.

Is this what you mean as kind of the Android model where different platform has different version and is frustrating?

I do see a similarity there with Android as you mentioned in the article.

Posted by budwizer on May 19, 2011 at 9:22 PM (CDT)


@AlfieJr (#4): Google definitely can do a wired update.  In fact, many power users eventually give up waiting for the OTA and grab the manual source that becomes available on third-party sites to install it themselves.  It’s actually surprisingly easy to do a manual install of Android and requires nothing more than a USB connection and Windows Explorer or Finder—you basically just copy the ZIP file to the device’s SD card and use a specific reboot sequence to load it.  Despite this, Google doesn’t make the official updates readily available for download, instead relying solely on the OTA method that leaves users frustrated and scratching their heads.

@budwizer (#5): Somehow I knew the Verizon iPhone would come up, and to be fair that is an exception, albeit it a recent one—it’s generally expected that Apple will unify this at some point in the future in the same way that the iPad and iPhone/iPod touch merged into the same iOS stream as of 4.2.

A similar parallel can be drawn to the Nexus AWS and PCS versions; as noted in the article, both the Nexus One and Nexus S updates went out to the AWS version (used by T-Mobile) weeks in advance of the PCS version (used by AT&T and the major Canadian carriers).  However, this is still a more subtle difference, as both phones are GSM models that simply operate at different frequencies, as opposed to a CDMA model which is an entirely different cellular technology.

Regardless, however, the point is that even Android devices with the exact same hardware have OTA updates staggered out over the course of days or even weeks.  The Nexus S AWS update began rolling out at the end of April and it was at least two weeks before the majority of devices had received the OTA.  The Nexus S PCS update began rolling out on Monday, but again many users are still waiting in frustration wondering when their device is going to receive the update.  The lack of communication from Google doesn’t help the situation either.

Although I’m still primarily an iPhone user, I have Android devices as well and have been through this personally with the Nexus One last June and the Nexus S this month.  A quick search of Google’s own support forums will reveal many Android users expressing concern and frustration over updates that seem to take forever to arrive amidst deafening silence from Google.  In fact, it wasn’t at all uncommon last year to see people threaten to give up in frustration and move to the iPhone while waiting for Froyo to arrive on the Nexus One, commenting that at least Apple provides release dates and sticks to them.

Posted by Jesse Hollington in Toronto on May 19, 2011 at 9:44 PM (CDT)


I suspect we’ll see OTA updates soon and iTunes based ones will remain. People forget that one synchs with iTunes to have a backup taken at the same time. This way if someone accidentally bricks their phone, they can simply plug into iTunes and recover and then update.

Posted by DaveMTL on May 19, 2011 at 10:08 PM (CDT)


@JDH - sideloading Android updates only work if the device is not running a customized version of Android OS that also requires associated OEM/telco software updates. so Nexus yes, but Galaxy no. this OS customization (aka fragmentation) is one reason why there is no Android desktop client software.

another is Google wants you to do everything in its “cloud.” whereas iTunes enables you to manage many different aspects of your iOS device conveniently on your desktop - what media/files you sync or not, organizing your screens/apps, and various settings/details.

none of this changes the fact Apple could certainly use both methods (and Android cannot). which your article missed.

Posted by AlfieJr on May 20, 2011 at 12:39 PM (CDT)


It’s interesting to see the frustration Android users face vs. the fairly straightforward way that Apple distributes updates. However, as has been pointed out, some of this is not necessarily tied at the core to the processes involved in OTA updates, but rather tied to how Google and associated carriers choose to handle it.

Really, for me, I don’t mind in the least plugging my iDevice in for an OS upgrade, but I would love to see local Wifi syncing become available. iOS upgrades come a couple of times a year, but I sync to my iTunes library almost daily. How nice it would be just hit a “sync” button as I dock my iPad by my bed for the night and wake up with everything updated.

Posted by Rob E. on May 23, 2011 at 9:59 AM (CDT)


As an Android user who’s gone through a few OS updates OTA, it has been my understanding (perhaps incorrectly) that Verizon not only gates when OS updates become available, but they (or Motorola in my case) are also the ones to push them out, not Google.

Because of this, Android releases are somewhat of a 3-ring circus—you have Google who builds the core OS, a hardware manufacturer has to thoroughly test it out (and perhaps modify any additional layers they’ve piled on top of it), then the carrier has to thoroughly review it before it is let loose on the public.

With the iPhone, the OS and hardware come from the same company, but the carriers still have to test and approve the OS release before it becomes available. I see no reason that in this model the OS could not be pushed OTA, over wi-fi, or via iTunes.

But there will always be delays in OS releases because of carrier oversight, which will be interesting to see how Apple manages this over time in the US with AT&T and Verizon. Perhaps this is one of the reasons that the two versions are out of sync, maybe we ought to get used to this aspect.

Posted by rockmyplimsoul on May 23, 2011 at 9:57 PM (CDT)


@ Rob E. - I totally agree! With apple, iOS updates are not very frequent, and as such, I don’t mind the wired update process. OTA updates would be nice, and even if they were limited to wifi only, that would be cool, but I would really like OTA syncing with my iTunes library more than anything.

I charge my iPhone in an alarm click next to my bed every night, and as such, I rarely feel the need to plug it in to my laptop to sync it. As such, I often find that when I do go to sync, the process takes a while because it’s been a while since my last backup, etc. This added time only makes syncing even less appealing. If my phone could simply sync with my iTunes when appropriate, this would be a lot better in terms of recency of backups and having both my macBook and iPhone up to date with my latest downloads, etc.

With wireless N standard built into apple’s latest iOS devices, I’m a little surprised that we don’t already have OTA wifi syncing yet. Hopefully we’ll have it soon, and OTA updates would be a nice bonus.

Posted by D Richards on May 24, 2011 at 1:07 AM (CDT)


@rockmyplimsoul (#10): The hardware manufacturers and carriers are completely involved in the case of all of their own devices.  The only exception to this is the Nexus series, which are sold as the “Pure Google” experience.  HTC manufactured the Nexus One and Google sold it directly from its web site.  The approach changed slightly with the Samsung-built Nexus S being sold through carriers. However, the carriers that choose to sell the Nexus S are not allowed to add any of their own modifications or even to carrier-lock the phone (a Nexus S purchased from any carrier will always be unlocked, whether it’s purchased on contract or not).

This is why the Nexus devices get the OTAs pretty quickly compared to every other Android device (my Nexus One had Froyo on June 30, 2011, my Telus Milestone didn’t get it until this April).  However, despite this, Google still rolls the Nexus OTAs out in a very haphazard fashion over the course of several weeks, rather than “pushing the button” for everybody at once.  This problem is further exacerbated by Google’s lack of communication regarding the process or any scheduled dates for when it’s going to occur.  End users are left to simply wonder if “today’s the day” that they’ll get the update.

With the exception of carrier locking, the Nexus line is the closest parallel to the iPhone in terms of OS updates and how they’re handled.

To the best of my knowledge, the carriers get no involvement in the approval process for iOS updates. I believe they’re given pre-release versions to test (in much the same way developers receive betas), and of course have the opportunity to submit their own carrier settings files to be bundled with a given iOS update (which can also be updated separately OTA), but Apple doesn’t wait for approval from carriers before launching an iOS update.  This is also the same case with Google and the Nexus OTAs—contrary to popular belief, T-Mobile, AT&T et al have nothing to do with the updates beyond being given an opportunity to test them.

I suspect the only reason the Verizon phone is currently a little bit behind is that it actually started out ahead with 4.2.5 which included not only specific support for a different hardware platform, but also features that the rest of us didn’t see until 4.3 arrived.  While unifying the two shouldn’t be that difficult, if the rumours of a single CDMA+GSM iPhone 5 are true, it may simply not be worth Apple’s effort to allocated developers and engineers to this right now, since the next iPhone would be the same hardware for all anyway.

Posted by Jesse Hollington in Toronto on May 24, 2011 at 9:44 AM (CDT)


Thanks for the insight, Jesse.  Not having to get the big V in the way of an iOS release is a relief.

It’s just odd that the CDMA iPhone hasn’t received the enhancements to AirPlay, Safari, etc. of 4.3 yet. Perhaps it was just the timing of things with the CDMA release and ‘external influences’ like the location fiasco that disrupted any earlier hope of unifying things. But I’m sure that iOS 5 will get the capabilities in line between the carriers.

Posted by rockmyplimsoul on May 24, 2011 at 12:41 PM (CDT)

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