Apple's iOS 7 isn't for you. But you should upgrade anyway

The secret target of Apple's new iOS releases is developers. But that doesn't mean users don't get benefits.

There's been a pattern with recent versions of iOS, the operating system which runs iPhones and iPads (and iPod Touches, the forgotten bottom rung of Apple's mobile strategy). Users see shiny new features, and upgrade in a rush. Then, after a few weeks of having fun with them, they find that the underlying problems they had with the operating system haven't really gone away, and that the vast majority of the features are more like gimmicks than actual improvements. Increasingly often, the ones which actually do offer something new and useful are done better by a third-party app: that's true of Safari's reading list (try Instapaper or Pocket instead) and of iCloud's… well, everything. (Dropbox offers the same feature set but has a better habit of actually working).

With iOS 7, due to hit on September 10, the "shiny" part of "shiny new features" takes the foreground. The new design has it's fair share of detractors, but if there's one thing it offers in spades, it's the veneer of newness. As a way to make an old phone feel fresh, even for just a couple of weeks, a new UI is perfect. But, of course, it's unlikely to change any problems you have with what your phone does today.

Here's the thing, though: iOS 7 isn't for you. Not really. So it doesn't matter if you get bored within a week of upgrading, so long as you do in fact upgrade. Because Apple needs a lot of users on the latest version of iOS to justify it to developers, the real targets of the new OS.

Every major upgrade of iOS has included a lot of consumer facing features, some more essential than others. But they've also included far more hooks for developers to use when they're making. That goes right back to iPhone OS 2, which introduced the App Store in the first place (in hindsight perhaps the most important software update of the last decade). But even since then, the changes have been relatively major. iPhone OS 3 introduced Core Data, a framework for managing databases; iOS 4 added features letting programmers more easily optimise for multiple processors; iOS 5 added image processing technology; iOS 6 upgraded the application programming interface (API) for dealing with cameras, maps and Facebook.

As well as those changes, there's the same low-grade improvements behind the scenes as there are up front. All of which means that, if you're making an app for the iPhone, it's a lot more pleasant to only have to support the latest version of two of iOS, rather than try and keep up complete backwards compatibility. But the flip-side of only supporting the latest versions is that you lose potential customers, as everyone who hasn't got round to upgrading is locked out.

And that's where the bells and whistles come in. With the new features in every version of iOS, and the effort put into making them backwards compatible with older phones (something which has no immediate payoff, and could even reduce the number of people upgrading to the latest model on release day), Apple manages to ensure that an astonishingly high percentage of customers are on the latest version. Ninety-four per cent of its customers are using iOS 6, and another 5 per cent are on iOS 5. Compare that to Android, where backwards compatibility is often limited (and carriers stand in the way of upgrades): 33 per cent of users are on Gingerbread, a release which came out over two and a half years ago. The latest version of Jelly Bean, which was released in July this year, has been adopted by so few that, as of August 1, Google wasn't even reporting numbers. The version before, released in November 2012, has just 6.5 per cent take up. It is only two months newer than iOS 6.

That coherence of the user base is a large part of the reason why iOS is considered preferable to develop for by many programmers (other reasons include iOS users increased tendency to spend money on things, and developers wanting to make apps for the phones they use); and that is why, despite Android having a far higher share of total smartphone users, iOS continues to get many large apps first or even exclusively.

So even though iOS 7 isn't for you, you'll get its benefit eventually. Just wait and look at the pretty colours in the meantime.

An iPhone running iOS 7. Photograph: Getty Images

Alex Hern is a technology reporter for the Guardian. He was formerly staff writer at the New Statesman. You should follow Alex on Twitter.

Photo: Getty Images
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The Fire Brigades Union reaffiliates to Labour - what does it mean?

Any union rejoining Labour will be welcomed by most in the party - but the impact on the party's internal politics will be smaller than you think.

The Fire Brigades Union (FBU) has voted to reaffiliate to the Labour party, in what is seen as a boost to Jeremy Corbyn. What does it mean for Labour’s internal politics?

Firstly, technically, the FBU has never affliated before as they are notionally part of the civil service - however, following the firefighters' strike in 2004, they decisively broke with Labour.

The main impact will be felt on the floor of Labour party conference. Although the FBU’s membership – at around 38,000 – is too small to have a material effect on the outcome of votes themselves, it will change the tenor of the motions put before party conference.

The FBU’s leadership is not only to the left of most unions in the Trades Union Congress (TUC), it is more inclined to bring motions relating to foreign affairs than other unions with similar politics (it is more internationalist in focus than, say, the PCS, another union that may affiliate due to Corbyn’s leadership). Motions on Israel/Palestine, the nuclear deterrent, and other issues, will find more support from FBU delegates than it has from other affiliated trade unions.

In terms of the balance of power between the affiliated unions themselves, the FBU’s re-entry into Labour politics is unlikely to be much of a gamechanger. Trade union positions, elected by trade union delegates at conference, are unlikely to be moved leftwards by the reaffiliation of the FBU. Unite, the GMB, Unison and Usdaw are all large enough to all-but-guarantee themselves a seat around the NEC. Community, a small centrist union, has already lost its place on the NEC in favour of the bakers’ union, which is more aligned to Tom Watson than Jeremy Corbyn.

Matt Wrack, the FBU’s General Secretary, will be a genuine ally to Corbyn and John McDonnell. Len McCluskey and Dave Prentis were both bounced into endorsing Corbyn by their executives and did so less than wholeheartedly. Tim Roache, the newly-elected General Secretary of the GMB, has publicly supported Corbyn but is seen as a more moderate voice at the TUC. Only Dave Ward of the Communication Workers’ Union, who lent staff and resources to both Corbyn’s campaign team and to the parliamentary staff of Corbyn and McDonnell, is truly on side.

The impact of reaffiliation may be felt more keenly in local parties. The FBU’s membership looks small in real terms compared Unite and Unison have memberships of over a million, while the GMB and Usdaw are around the half-a-million mark, but is much more impressive when you consider that there are just 48,000 firefighters in Britain. This may make them more likely to participate in internal elections than other affiliated trade unionists, just 60,000 of whom voted in the Labour leadership election in 2015. However, it is worth noting that it is statistically unlikely most firefighters are Corbynites - those that are will mostly have already joined themselves. The affiliation, while a morale boost for many in the Labour party, is unlikely to prove as significant to the direction of the party as the outcome of Unison’s general secretary election or the struggle for power at the top of Unite in 2018. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.