Over-the-air iOS updates could begin Jobs’ “post-PC world”

May 6, 2011
Tech

The latest of the summertime iOS rumors is starting to pick up steam around the Internet, concerning iOS 5, the next version of the mobile operating system Apple (AAPL) uses to power its iPhones and iPads. According to a story from 9to5Mac, one of the biggest new functions of iOS 5 will be over-the-air updates. […]

The latest of the summertime iOS rumors is starting to pick up steam around the Internet, concerning iOS 5, the next version of the mobile operating system Apple (AAPL) uses to power its iPhones and iPads.

According to a story from 9to5Mac, one of the biggest new functions of iOS 5 will be over-the-air updates. Much like how apps on iOS devices can be updated over any 3G or Wi-Fi network, multiple sources are saying that updates to the whole operating system will be delivered without the need to plug a device into a computer.

This is interesting — and kind of a long time coming — for a couple of reasons. First, devices using Google’s (GOOG) Android operating system already enjoy this convenience. While that’s not necessarily a selling point or a negative aspect for iOS devices, especially considering that updates to Android are a lot harder to distribute because they go through each wireless carrier individually for each device, it’s still something that Google does that Apple doesn’t.

Secondly, and much more importantly, OTA updates would be much more in line with the technological world Steve Jobs envisions and in which he actively tries to convince people we live. An iPad that has to be tethered to a PC or Mac makes it dependent on the old guard of technology and information, but Jobs is in the business of things like his self-styled “magic” — devices that seem cooler than desktop computers.

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Back when Jobs announced the iPad 2 in March, he described the success of the iPad and talked about how humanity was moving into the “post-PC world.” It sounded nice at the time, and the iPad certainly seems like something that could be considered a “post-PC device,” but several writers rightly pointed out that the iPad is no such thing. Users must have access to a PC, the Internet and iTunes in order to use their iOS devices. In fact, the very first thing a new iPad owner must do is plug the device into iTunes using a physical cord; with iPhones, updates and backups require a PC as well. That makes both devices, but especially the iPad, more accessories than devices that unschackle users from their computers.

So the image of cutting loose of Apple’s signature 30-pin docking cable is an important one if Apple wants to maintain its place as the leader in futuristic technology and devices. There are some logistical issues, however. Apple is already in talks with Verizon (VZ) to issue the updates over its network, but it’s unclear if similar talks with AT&T (T) are taking place, according to 9to5Mac.

For one, Apple’s iOS updates have been getting bigger and bigger, and now top 600MB. That’s more data than either AT&T or Verizon will be willing to send to all their iOS users in one big shot, so it’ll mean Apple making smaller piecemeal updates in increments.

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Rumblings about iOS 5 also include a lot of talk about cloud services, like a digital locker for music like the one Amazon currently provides its customers. Backing up devices, which currently is done automatically by iTunes whenever an iPhone or iPad is synced with a computer, could be an issue if Apple goes wireless. A cloud-based solution is a likely answer.

With Apple likely to push more cloud services in the fall when iOS 5 is expected to be released (alongside the next iPhone), going to over-the-air updates makes a lot of sense. It could mean a substantial way in which users receive new versions of software for the devices, but the change would finally make the iPad in particular a stand-alone device — something that seems very much crucial to the kind of brand Apple is still working to build.

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Phil Hornshaw

Phil Hornshaw is a freelance writer, editor and author living in Los Angeles, dividing his time between playing video games, playing video games on his cell phone, and writing about playing video games. He’s also the co-author of So You Created a Wormhole: The Time Traveler’s Guide to Time Travel, which attempts to mix time travel pop culture with some semblance of science, as well as tips on the appropriate means of riding dinosaurs. Check out his profile.

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