Apple appears to be poised to improve the update processes for both iOS and Mac OS X. The company may debut direct, over-the-air updates for iPhones, iPads, and iPod touches beginning with iOS 5. Additionally, the Mac App Store could be the "preferred" platform for delivering updates to Mac OS X Lion.
According to multiple sources for 9to5 Mac, Apple hopes to debut OTA updates for iOS once iOS 5 launches sometime this year. iPhones, iPads, and iPod touches currently must be connected to a computer running iTunes to download and install updates. However, the iOS-powered Apple TV does not; it can update itself directly over the network. iOS 5 should enable this capability for iOS devices, potentially enabling iPhones to update even over 3G.
One issue that has made updating via iTunes a necessity is that iOS updates are usually distributed as a complete firmware image. The reason behind this is that iOS is digitally signed to ensure security, the same way iOS apps are digitally signed (and why whole apps must also be downloaded to update them).
9to5 Mac believes that Apple will enable iOS 5 to receive incremental patches, at least for minor point revisions. This would make updating via WiFi a snap, but also opens the door for iPhones to update directly over 3G, the same way other smartphone platforms can. Apple has reportedly been in talks with Verizon to enable OTA iOS updates via 3G on its network, though sources for 9to5 Mac couldn't say if similar talks were taking place with other carriers.
Since iTunes is also used to back up an iOS device before an update, it's likely that a service, like Apple's rumored iCloud, would be offered to back up data before applying OTA updates.
Once iOS devices can be updated OTA, we expect users will migrate to newer versions of iOS in greater numbers. We hear from a lot of friends and readers that users rarely plug iPhones or iPads in for syncing or backing up, and that tracks with our own personal experience as well.
Apple will also reportedly be transitioning the Mac OS X update process away from pesky old optical discs, and may in fact use the Mac App Store as the preferred method for distributing Mac OS X Lion. Sources for AppleInsider say that Apple will release Lion via the Mac App Store first, making it the de facto method for upgrading from Snow Leopard.
Apple has been using the Mac App Store to deliver test builds of Lion to developers. While this helps Apple better track who is downloading, it may be seen as a test of its ability to deliver multi-gigabyte files to millions of customers simultaneously—a source told Ars that the latest build was a 3.6GB download.
Distribution via the Mac App Store makes sense for two reasons. The first is that Apple has been transitioning towards digital distribution of software ever since the iOS App Store proved extremely popular. With the Mac App Store getting a similar reception, the company recently began accelerating plans to eliminate boxed software from its retail stores. The other reason is that one of the company's top-selling computers, the MacBook Air, doesn't include an optical drive. For users that only have a MacBook Air, a non-disc install option is paramount. Steve Jobs also called the latest MacBook Airs the "future of notebooks," so it's not unreasonable to think Apple may begin to eschew optical drives in future MacBooks and MacBook Pros to gain space for additional battery capacity or slim down the size.
Apple will still likely provide a disc-based install for Lion in addition to utilizing the Mac App Store. Not all users will have a broadband connection suitable for downloading over 3GB. And some users will prefer the security of having the update available on a disc in the event the OS needs to be reinstalled.
As noted above, however, anything that reduces user friction for getting updates installed is a net win. More users will upgrade, gaining the benefits of new features as well as bug fixes and security patches. With more users upgrading, developers can reasonably target newer OS versions, incorporating the latest features and using newer programming APIs which generally result in improved performance.
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