Does iOS 9.3 herald a new release strategy?

With the maturity of the smartphone market, Apple may be taking a different approach to upgrading iOS.

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Credit: Apple

Over the last almost-decade, Apple’s established a pretty consistent pattern when it comes to its mobile OS. Every year, the company launches a new major version of iOS, usually alongside a flagship smartphone release. After the new software hits, the subsequent months see a flurry of intermittent, smaller updates, usually fixing bugs, patching security, and perhaps even tweaking a minor feature or two.

It’s pretty rare for Apple to use these point releases to add more substantial new features, but that’s just what happened this past week, when the company not only put out a beta version of iOS 9.3 for developers, but also posted a page of the not-insignificant features included in it. As my savvy colleague Jason Snell pointed out, it was a good way to upend the traditional pattern wherein a beta is released to developers, and media outlets trip over themselves to be the first to find all the features squirreled away within it.

But it also potentially speaks to a shift in the way that Apple’s treating updating iOS, and that could be a very good thing indeed.

The monolith

The thing about major OS releases every year is that they’re predictable. That’s both good and bad: good because there’s a clear, if unspoken, target for Apple and third-party developers alike; bad because of the sheer nature of predictability: we know when new features are going to drop, and we often have a decent idea of what some of those features will be. More to the point, we know that during the rest of the year, new features and capabilities are unlikely to materialize. Christmas only comes once a year.

It’s also seemed, in the past, that improvement upon previous versions of iOS dwindles as a new release approaches. There are bug fixes and security updates, of course, but even those are few and far between. Until last year’s release of iOS 8.3, previous versions of iOS had never even reached that milestone—the previous record holder was iOS 4.2.1. Then it was on to the next major release, along with new features, bugs, and hurdles. If there were lingering issues or missing functionality, you’d better hope Apple decided to fix it in the next major update.

Sustaining members

There’s no denying that Apple’s current approach has worked fine so far. I certainly wouldn’t argue that it hasn’t been successful. But the platform and the smartphone market as a whole have both evolved considerably. So many of those early releases were about filling in low-hanging functionality—remember that cut, copy, and paste weren’t added until iOS 3—that it made sense to focus on major releases.

But these days, the smartphone is a mature product. Since the iPhone’s release nine years ago this summer, it’s become an indispensable—if not the indispensable—piece of technology for most of us. There are still plenty of advances to be made, but if Apple’s focus on branching out into new categories like the Apple Watch is any indication, the smartphone’s place in our world is clearly assured. It’s the elder statesman, not the young, scrappy, and hungry upstart.

So, to me, the goal now seems one of sustainability: keeping the iPhone and its users updated and happy, possibly with a steady stream of smaller updates rather than a single major tentpole release every summer.

We’re doing it live

This approach—or a mix of the two—can prove quite effective. I’m thinking in particular of the path I’ve watched game developer Bungie take with its massively multiplayer online game Destiny. The company has said in the past that it has a ten-year plan for the game, and after it released the first version of the game—to admittedly mixed reviews—in fall 2014, it followed it up with two major expansions, spaced a few months apart. That was followed by a much more significant—and much better regarded—release a year after the initial game launched.

Since then, however, Bungie has spoken of its plan to change from releasing downloadable expansions to instead focusing on having in-game events occur from time to time. Rather than simply adding new story content or items to the existing game, these events take more offbeat forms: a charming festival during Halloween that let players collect candy and earn costumes, or a totally new racing mode over the winter holidays in which players could compete on their speeder bikes and earn fun rewards. While those updates may be ancillary to the main thrust of the game, they keep players engaged and—more importantly—coming back.

Bungie’s Live Team is responsible for deploying and managing these events, and they’ve done a solid job so far. It’s a clever way to keep the game fresh and interesting without having to be locked into the pattern that Bungie had established in its first year of major downloadable content releases.

Steady, not slow

Could Apple do something similar? Perhaps. What if this year’s “big” release at the Worldwide Developers Conference wasn’t iOS 10, but instead iOS 9.5? There might be cries of bloody murder and Apple doom—though what Apple decision hasn’t been heralded by those—but this might also provide a way for Apple to focus on improving software quality and reliability, another topic on which there has been much written of late.

None of this need mean that development or innovation in iOS grind to a halt. But we’re no longer in the gold-rush period that characterized the early release of the smartphone, exciting as it was. So perhaps it’s time for the smartphone to settle down and become something a little steadier, a little stabler, and a little more modest—as befits the device that we depend on everyday.

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