Six Colors
Six Colors

by Jason Snell & Dan Moren

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By Jason Snell

Let the upgrades begin (or not)

September and October are the holiday season of the Apple world. New phones, new operating systems, and sometimes surprise new hardware, all just in time for the actual holiday buying season, Apple’s biggest sales period of the year.

In this issue you’ll see my review of the new iPhones, which I posted on the site Sunday night. It was quite a ride this year, as I had to write this review while also starting our series of pieces about iOS 13 features, pondering the final touches to macOS Catalina, and packing up my daughter and delivering her to her first year of college.

The new iPhones are good. For a “boring, iterative year”, they’re iterated in just the right ways. I hope my daughter gets the most out of her purple iPhone 11 as she wanders around her college campus.

About those operating systems, though…

Apple has invested an awful lot in getting everyone who uses its devices to enable a feature that allows Apple to automatically push out software updates. This is good for security and for app compatibility, but I feel like it also creates even more of a contract between Apple and its users. If you’re going to automatically push out updates to everyone, they need to be more stable and solid than if they’re opt-ins that are easy for people to ignore.

Last year’s updates were solid. But this year has really put that implied commitment to the test. iOS 13 was buggy and while iOS 13.1 (and 13.1.1—and Apple literally released iOS 13.1.2 as I wrote this!) is less buggy, “less buggy” is still buggy. This summer’s beta versions were a bit of a mess and things didn’t settle down by the end of the summer. Apple pulled a bunch of features out of 13.0 in order to ship it in time for the new iPhones, but things are still weird and broken in various corners of the OS.

What’s more, this misbegotten summer has left app developers in a terrible position. Many developers I know have had to spend the entire summer focusing on compatibility update to their apps—in other words, they’ve just been trying to make sure their apps don’t break on the new OS versions. Adopting new features introduced with these versions has been a lower priority, meaning that there aren’t as many apps that are showing off the possibilities that are enabled by the new updates. That’s bad for users and it’s bad for Apple. (It’s also going to take the shine off the release of macOS Catalina, which was supposed to see a flood of iPad apps coming over to the Mac. A lot of those developers have barely been able to get their apps working on iPadOS 13, and have said it’ll likely be 2020 before they can convert them into Mac apps.)

I hope Apple is considering a new approach to OS development that doesn’t involve shoveling every feature under the sun into a single release, announcing it in June, and being forced to ship it all in September. Pulling features out of the beta is a good start, but perhaps it would be more healthy for Apple to commit to several milestone releases over the course of the year, rather than a single monolithic release (with follow-ups) in the fall.

I also wonder if Apple should replace its current public beta program, which lets the general public test out pre-release versions of software, to be more of an “early release” program, where some users opt in to get new software in advance—while allowing the rest of the public to only get updates that are deemed stable and secure after having been thoroughly tested. Apple needs to find a way to automatically update devices without putting users through buggy upgrade cycles just so new OS versions can ship with new hardware.

In any event, if you haven’t upgraded to iOS 13 yet, maybe wait a little while longer? And whenever macOS Catalina arrives, I’d highly recommend you not upgrade and wait to see what the issues are. I’ll have a full review of Catalina when it ships, and will have detailed advice in there about upgrading—but the short version is, Catalina will break a lot of things, so it’s a good idea to avoid upgrading until you absolutely need to. Which might be months or even years. In the end, you control when your devices update, not Apple—and you can choose to take the slow path. This year, that’s that path you should take.

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