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
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What will the 2017 local elections tell us about the general election?

In her timing of the election, Theresa May is taking a leaf out of Margaret Thatcher's book. 

Local elections are, on the whole, a much better guide to the next general election than anything the polls might do.

In 2012, Kevin Cunningham, then working in Labour’s targeting and analysis team, surprised his colleagues by announcing that they had lost the 2015 election. Despite gaining 823 councillors and taking control of 32 more local authorities, Cunningham explained to colleagues, they hadn’t made anything like the gains necessary for that point in the parliament. Labour duly went on to lose, in defiance of the polls, in 2015.

Matt Singh, the founder of NumberCruncherPolitics, famously called the polling failure wrong, in part because Labour under Ed Miliband had underperformed their supposed poll share in local elections and parliamentary by-elections throughout the parliament.

The pattern in parliamentary by-elections and local elections under Jeremy Corbyn before the European referendum all pointed the same way – a result that was not catastrophically but slightly worse than that secured by Ed Miliband in 2015. Since the referendum, thanks to the popularity of Theresa May, the Conservative poll lead has soared but more importantly, their performance in contests around the country has improved, too.

As regular readers will know, I was under the impression that Labour’s position in the polls had deteriorated during the coup against Corbyn, but much to my surprise, Labour’s vote share remained essentially stagnant during that period. The picture instead has been one of steady deterioration, which has accelerated since the calling of the snap election. So far, voters buy Theresa May’s message that a large majority will help her get a good Brexit deal. (Spoiler alert: it won’t.)

If the polls are correct, assuming a 2020 election, what we would expect at the local elections would be for Labour to lose around 100 councillors, largely to the benefit of the Liberal Democrats, and the Conservatives to pick up around 100 seats too, largely to the detriment of Ukip.

But having the local elections just five weeks before the general elections changes things. Basically, what tends to happen in local elections is that the governing party takes a kicking in off-years, when voters treat the contests as a chance to stick two fingers up to the boost. But they do better when local elections are held on the same day as the general election, as voters tend to vote for their preferred governing party and then vote the same way in the elections on the same day.

The Conservatives’ 2015 performance is a handy example of this. David Cameron’s Tories gained 541 councillors that night. In 2014, they lost 236, in 2013 they lost 335, and in 2012 they lost 405. In 2011, an usually good year for the governing party, they actually gained 86, an early warning sign that Miliband was not on course to win, but one obscured because of the massive losses the Liberal Democrats sustained in 2011.

The pattern holds true for Labour governments, too. In 2010, Labour gained 417 councillors, having lost 291 and 331 in Gordon Brown’s first two council elections at the helm. In 2005, with an electoral map which, like this year’s was largely unfavourable to Labour, Tony Blair’s party only lost 114 councillors, in contrast to the losses of 464 councillors (2004), 831 councillors (2003) and 334 councillors (2002).  This holds true all the way back to 1979, the earliest meaningful comparison point thanks to changes to local authorities’ sizes and electorates, where Labour (the governing party) gained council seats after years of losing them.

So here’s the question: what happens when local elections are held in the same year but not the same day as local elections? Do people treat them as an opportunity to kick the government? Or do they vote “down-ticket” as they do when they’re held on the same day?

Before looking at the figures, I expected that they would be inclined to give them a miss. But actually, only the whole, these tend to be higher turnout affairs. In 1983 and 1987, although a general election had not been yet called, speculation that Margaret Thatcher would do so soon was high. In 1987, Labour prepared advertisements and a slogan for a May election. In both contests, voters behaved much more like a general election, not a local election.

The pattern – much to my surprise – holds for 1992, too, when the Conservatives went to the country in April 1992, a month before local elections. The Conservatives gained 303 seats in May 1992.

What does this mean for the coming elections? Well, basically, a good rule of thumb for predicting general elections is to look at local election results, and assume that the government will do a bit better and the opposition parties will do significantly worse.

(To give you an idea: two years into the last parliament, Labour’s projected national vote share after the local elections was 38 per cent. They got 31 per cent. In 1985, Labour’s projected national vote share based on the local elections was 39 per cent, they got 30 per cent. In 2007, the Conservatives projected share of the vote was 40 per cent – they got 36 per cent, a smaller fall, but probably because by 2010 Gordon Brown was more unpopular even than Tony Blair had been by 2007.)

In this instance, however, the evidence suggests that the Tories will do only slightly better and Labour and the Liberal Democrats only slightly worse in June than their local election performances in May. Adjust your sense of  what “a good night” for the various parties is accordingly. 

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

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