While this doesn’t merit a full editorial, we wanted to mention something that Apple’s doing quite well, particularly in light of experiences we’ve recently had with competing devices: software updates. Grumble as you will about the sometimes glacial pacing of Apple’s updates or certain bugs that have seemingly been ignored for months or years, but there are aspects of the Apple user experience that you can’t fully appreciate until you’ve spent time with, say, Sony’s PlayStation 3, and realized how annoying simple software updates can become.
There are two categories of software updates that Apple handles well. We’ll mostly skip over one of them—third-party app updates—despite the fact that iTunes and the App Stores have earned angel wings merely by aggregating hundreds of thousands of different apps within easy-to-use Updates areas. Want to be sure your Apple-purchased third-party app is up to date? Whether you’re using a computer or an iOS device, you know exactly where to look. Hit Update All and you can be sure that everything’s up to date, for free. This is so simple, handled in the background while you’re doing other things, and works flawlessly unless your Internet connection is interrupted. The worst complaint anyone has these days is that third-party app updates are too common, a far better state of affairs than the polar alternative.
But Apple also merits plaudits for its handling of software updates to iTunes and its iOS devices. Users generally take this for granted, but Apple treats all of its devices, Apple TV and otherwise, as appliances. Bugs aside, they continue to work completely even if you don’t download updates. They don’t nag you to perform updates, which are optional, by shutting off your access to their features. And Apple doesn’t just push out single-feature updates to its devices, which helps to avoid the perception that its updates are merely annoyances.
Contrast this with Sony’s approach to PlayStation 3 updates and you’ll see that the differences are stark. Turn on a PlayStation 3 after several days off and you may discover that a system update is literally required if you want to, say, open the PlayStation Store. You’ll discover this because the Store will not open, and the PlayStation 3 will prompt you with a “Yes/No” update box that practically can’t be answered “no.” What could possibly be so important in this update, you might ask? “You can now set the amount of time before a controller turns off after you have stopped using it,” the console says after you agree to the update, then re-agree to a system software license that you’ve accepted many times before, since it was last changed in 2009.
There are so many unnecessary button presses and associated clink noises to go through in this process, which can happen twice in a month, that you have to wonder whether anyone at Sony actually views its products as game consoles—effectively, appliances—any more. A Sony update can seemingly consist of nothing more than a security patch, and depending on a number of factors, the process can take 5 or 10 minutes per update—minutes that the user expected to spend playing games, not navigating through updating screens. It really says something that Microsoft of all companies has managed to remove most of these annoyances from the Xbox 360, though it still locks users out of its Xbox Live service if they’re unwilling to perform updates.
Sony seems to know that it’s annoying users, and amazingly, it has turned the hassle of updates into a revenue-generating opportunity. If you want to set your PlayStation 3 to automatically update its system software overnight, you have to buy a three- or twelve-month subscription to a service called PlayStation Plus. Sony actually touts automatic updating as an “exclusive feature” of PlayStation Plus, “so you never have to worry about it or lift a finger.” The cost? $50 per year. Of course, you also get early access to game demos and other features for that price, but you can’t auto-update your PlayStation 3 without paying it, either.
So whenever you’re cursing your Apple TV for not supporting iTunes Extras, or your iPhone’s broken built-in alarm for failing to wake you up in the morning, just remember that it could and probably be much worse if Sony was calling the shots. You could find yourself locked out of iTunes and the App Store every time Apple added security fixes to the iOS version of Safari, or need to agree to the same iTunes terms of service twelve times in a row. By making software updates free and hassle-free, Apple has spared everyone a lot of unnecessary annoyance over the past couple of years in particular, which have seen even iPod touch updates go free, like iTunes, iPhone, Apple TV, and iPad releases. Now if it could just fix those lingering bugs, we’d all be thrilled…