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
Show Hide image

Who will win the Copeland by-election?

Labour face a tricky task in holding onto the seat. 

What’s the Copeland by-election about? That’s the question that will decide who wins it.

The Conservatives want it to be about the nuclear industry, which is the seat’s biggest employer, and Jeremy Corbyn’s long history of opposition to nuclear power.

Labour want it to be about the difficulties of the NHS in Cumbria in general and the future of West Cumberland Hospital in particular.

Who’s winning? Neither party is confident of victory but both sides think it will be close. That Theresa May has visited is a sign of the confidence in Conservative headquarters that, win or lose, Labour will not increase its majority from the six-point lead it held over the Conservatives in May 2015. (It’s always more instructive to talk about vote share rather than raw numbers, in by-elections in particular.)

But her visit may have been counterproductive. Yes, she is the most popular politician in Britain according to all the polls, but in visiting she has added fuel to the fire of Labour’s message that the Conservatives are keeping an anxious eye on the outcome.

Labour strategists feared that “the oxygen” would come out of the campaign if May used her visit to offer a guarantee about West Cumberland Hospital. Instead, she refused to answer, merely hyping up the issue further.

The party is nervous that opposition to Corbyn is going to supress turnout among their voters, but on the Conservative side, there is considerable irritation that May’s visit has made their task harder, too.

Voters know the difference between a by-election and a general election and my hunch is that people will get they can have a free hit on the health question without risking the future of the nuclear factory. That Corbyn has U-Turned on nuclear power only helps.

I said last week that if I knew what the local paper would look like between now and then I would be able to call the outcome. Today the West Cumbria News & Star leads with Downing Street’s refusal to answer questions about West Cumberland Hospital. All the signs favour Labour. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.