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After iOS 8's glitches, Apple might want to rethink its update strategy

Facebook and Android’s approach to software releases isn’t as fast or pervasive as Apple’s, but these companies aren’t at risk from a PR storm from a massive rollout of a buggy update.

Apple iOS 8 on iPhone
Credit: Apple

All the reported glitches in the iOS 8 updates should be a sign that Apple needs to depart from its massive rollouts of new versions of iOS. In defense of Apple (something that readers rarely see on this blog), not many of the reported issues with iOS 8 were that bad; it was mainly glitches that intolerant iPhone users and a hungry press corps blew out of proportion.

Nonetheless, why expose the company to the publicity risk, especially after the failure of the live streaming of the iPhone 6 announcements? The combination of the two would lead one to believe that QA at the ultimate user experience company is slipping.

A lot of companies have tried and abandoned the mass update approach because it is very challenging. That Apple has succeeded with so many previous releases is testimony to its QA team.

One thing is clear – iPhone users are pressing the upgrade button less often with iOS 8 compared to earlier releases. It’s been 23 days since iOS 8 became available and according to mixpanel only 45% of iPhone users have chosen to install the new OS, compared to 68% who pushed the iOS 7 upgrade button within 23 days of its release last year.

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No one is really pleased with Android upgrades either because updates are constrained by the mobile carriers. Android updates have occurred much faster lately, especially with leading smartphone manufactures like HTC and Samsung. But the update process is still the same. Android users have to wait for the smartphone companies to release their version of Android to the mobile carriers, and the carriers in turn to push an over-the-air update to Android devices. But it’s a better process than Apple’s despite the delay because Android beta versions and source code are released well in advance to all the others. The smartphone manufacturers, custom ROM developers, and app developers work with the new version. Bugs are reported on the Android Issue Tracker and sometimes developers post fixes and enhancements so Google’s developers don’t have to fix every issue or feature request, and the final release had been scrubbed for bugs by many more developers than Google has on its Android team.

Apple’s partners don’t have access to iOS source code so the responsibility for bug fixes lies entirely with Apple’s development team. The difference between iOS and Android is that Apple is completely in control of its updates. Apple decides when to push new updates. The marketing value of full iOS releases is questionable when considering the risk of bugs that make it to the public. Facebook’s mobile team has a better way to do release updates.

Facebook releases updates to its iOS and Android mobile apps about every four weeks that include new features and bug fixes. The company updates a limited number of users in a controlled release sometimes, with as many as 10 to 15 versions of the same release that the company’s developers call experiments. Facebook developed a testing framework called Airlock that lets the company’s developers compare metric data from each version of the app and the various tests, and then decide which version to ship.

Apple would do well for itself if it were to consider other release strategies. According to mobile developers, Apple users are much more sensitive to bugs than Android users. Perhaps Apple would be better off using more analytics to identify its more tolerant users and release controlled experiments like Facebook does.

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