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The Case for Making iOS Upgrade U-Turns Easy

By Chris Maxcer MacNewsWorld ECT News Network
Nov 9, 2010 5:00 AM PT

I am anxiously awaiting the release of iOS 4.2 -- which Apple is rumored to deliver sometime this week -- because I'm looking forward to seeing my iPhone 4 stream home videos to my Apple TV. My Apple TV, of course, is connected to the HDTV in my living room, which is where friends and family tend to congregate, particularly around the holidays.

The Case for Making iOS Upgrade U-Turns Easy

The feature is called "AirPlay," and it lets you wirelessly stream videos, music and photos, in addition to streaming music to AirPlay speakers or receivers, including AirPort Express. (I can't wait to enjoy it myself and then show it off during football half-time -- the Cowboys are still playing on Thanksgiving, right?)

For iPad owners, there are other new features to be excited about -- including features like multitasking and folders -- that iPhone 4 owners already have. There's also AirPrint (wirelessly print over WiFi), an improved Mail app, Game Center, stronger enterprise security and management features.

Cool stuff, all of it.

Unless the Release Somehow Makes Your Device Worse

While Apple is a brilliant, amazing company that has improved my life and millions of others', it's not beyond reproach. Case in point is the iPhone 3G, which is moderately compatible with iOS 4 and the newer iOS 4.1. When iOS 4 first came out, I upgraded my iPhone 3G, and I was quite excited ... until I realized that suddenly my battery was draining faster than the water from the kitchen sink. I messed around with some of the tips on Apple's iPhone Battery information page, but to no avail.

It become increasingly clear that the cool new features in iOS 4 were not worth having if my iPhone 3G ended up drained and lifeless within a couple of hours.

A Pitchfork in Your Back?

The thing about Apple is, the company delivers some consistently amazing new upgrades to all of its software. This means that iPhone and iPod touch owners often get free upgrades with news features found on the newest hardware, which extends the life of their older products. I love this. It also makes managing my devices easier ... I don't have to worry about apps that are compatible with different versions.

Except, sometimes, not everything turns out sunshine and roses.

Now, it would have been nice if I could have simply downgraded my iPhone 3G to the previous version of the OS, but the path is convoluted and difficult. Essentially, once you upgrade, you're upgraded forever -- particularly if you're a regular Joe consumer and not some technically savvy wunderkind who has time to kill. Apple does not make it easy to go back.

It's not just with iOS and mobile devices. Once you upgrade your Safari browser, it's astoundingly difficult to roll back to an earlier version. I was once burned by Safari, and I wasted eight hours of my life trying to get back on track. That's the dark side of being an early adopter of new versions and technology: Sometimes, despite the generally amazing quality control that comes out of Cupertino, it all doesn't go according to plan for everyone.

Good Reasons or Pure Evil?

On the side of goodness and light, Apple's generally easy upgrade paths make it possible to have a large install base of users who are on the latest and greatest versions of its software. This makes the pool of users attractive to developers and makes it easier to manage support. Plus, if existing customers are consistently upgrading and learning the new features, Apple ends up with a consistently smarter pool of customers who are more intimately aware of the capabilities of their device, be it an iPhone, iPad, iPod touch or Mac.

It tends to give Apple a customer base of educated and satisfied customers.

On the dark side, what happens when it doesn't work for you in particular?

You're pretty much screwed.

For me, the loss of battery with my iPhone 3G wasn't such a big deal because I had snagged an iPhone 4. The iPhone 3G was heading toward a role as back-up device anyway. But what if you had no intention of upgrading? How might that feel? How might that work out for you in real life?

For some iPhone 3G owners, it's been pretty bad, and some customer reports have indicated that problems extended beyond battery life and into everyday performance -- system responsiveness slowed and some owners reported their iPhone 3G units started running hot.

One customer, Bianca Wofford, filed a lawsuit seeking class action status over some of the issues, which were alleged to be "unsavory, dishonest, and deceptive." According to documents from the suit, Wofford says, "In essence, Apple knowingly and intentionally released what it called a system software 'upgrade' that, in fact, made hundreds of thousands of the Third Generation iPhones that were exclusively tethered to AT&T data plans 'useless' for their intended purpose."

Despite the issues, Wofford notes, it took Apple nearly three months to take any corrective action.

A side effect of these sorts of issues is that some people seem to believe that Apple pushes out upgrades that older devices simply can't handle on purpose, then offers little in the way of easy downgrades, as a way to shove customers toward buying its newest hardware.

I don't believe this. Software and hardware are extraordinarily complicated things. I think we take that for granted. At the same time, imagine being stuck with an under-performing iPhone ... talk about messing up your life.

Freedom to Change Your Mind

So what's the answer?

All Apple has to do is provide an easy way for consumers to roll back a new upgrade to a previous release. If it works as expected, a rollback won't be necessary. But if an unforeseen problem does arise, affected customers would have an easy way to get back to the goodness before their upgrade event.

So, why hasn't Apple offered this? Will Apple give us the option in the future? I certainly hope so, and I hope it becomes a standard operating practice for all of Apple's products that get upgraded. But there's only one person who can make this happen, of course: Apple CEO Steve Jobs.

While I think Wofford is overreacting, maybe she's not. Maybe it's the only way to spark some real action.

Meanwhile, I'm still anxiously awaiting iOS 4.2 along with hundreds of thousands of others, and that's the crazy crux of the problem.


MacNewsWorld columnist Chris Maxcer has been writing about the tech industry since the birth of the email newsletter, and he still remembers the clacking Mac keyboards from high school -- Apple's seed-planting strategy at work. While he enjoys elegant gear and sublime tech, there's something to be said for turning it all off -- or most of it -- to go outside. To catch him, take a "firstnamelastname" guess at Gmail.com.


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