Over The Air Updates with iOS

With the original introduction of FaceTime, there seemed to be an overwhelming amount of vitriol over the fact that Apple wasn’t supporting video calls over 3G. Of course there were other third party solutions at the time, like Fring which did support video over 3G.

More recently though, we now have Skype with video calling available over 3G. While I haven’t personally tested it myself, from what I hear it’s still not as good as FaceTime over FaceTime. How could it be though, regardless of how Apple’s and Skype’s protocols differ, the bottom line is that we’re dealing with a much bigger pipe on WiFi, which means video call quality is going to be inherently better.

Naturally as is with all things Apple does, they iterate and iterate slowly – each time ensuring maximum polish and minimum features. Apple knows clear well that doing good quality reliable video calling can’t be done right now over the current 3G networks we have in North America. It’s far more reasonable that we’ll see FaceTime support in the future perhaps once 4G networks have been fully rolled out and become the norm.

Over the air operating system updates for iOS — something geeks and power users like myself, and people who read this weblog, have been wanting this for considerable time. Many of us are proponents of reducing the dependency we have on being tethered to our computers via cable just to do OS updates, not to mention performing other syncing duties.

The inherent issues with OTA updates that Apple must considering should be the following:

  • Huge OS updates in the hundreds of megabytes could take all day to download over 3G.

  • Factoring in monthly bandwidth caps, downloading a 300MB + OS update is a concern for people with 512MB per month data caps (At least in Canada that’s an issue with Rogers Wireless).

  • The overall general user experience of downloading a major update could be poor, due to the fact that if you’re in an area with spotty 3G service, the download will be painfully slow or may even stall.

So let’s imagine you’re in an area with relatively good 3G speeds. You get a notification on your phone that a new OS update is being pushed to your device. You start driving or walking around town and hit a dead zone, or perhaps an area with no 3G service. At this point, your phone may fall back to the much slower EDGE network. At that point, it could take days for the latest iOS update to fully download, unless of course you hit a WiFi network at some point.

With the upcoming iOS 5 release, I’m not sure if OTA OS updates is something Apple is aiming for over 3G, however, it’s more feasible that they could just support it over WiFi only. This would be a great stop gap measure until the proliferation of tested and reliable 4G networks come into play.

Macrumors late yesterday chimed in on some OTA rumours for iOS 5:

Multiple sources say the new feature will debut in iOS 5, meaning iOS 5 will not come over-the-air but following point updates to it will. Just like tethering in iOS 3, Apple has the technology but cannot just unleash it everywhere. Apple and Verizon Wireless are said to have been in talks over these wireless software updates since early this year.

If this is at all true, that’s great, as if Apple can solve the first major hurdle — not having their users penalized by their puny data caps — that would make OTA updates far more palatable.

The Apple TV which is based on iOS 4 offers “over the air” updates with no iTunes syncing required. The Apple TV, however, stores little customer data so backups are not as critical as with iPhone and iPad devices.

This is the next major hurdle. It’s one thing when something like the Apple TV doesn’t store much user data, but when you have 16,32, and 64GB iPhones and iPads with tons of apps, it’s a whole other story. I don’t know what Apple’s solution will be to do this, but I imagine the “mythical” data center they built must have something to do with it.