Betas forever? Why Apple’s move to iOS 13.1 makes sense

It may seem like odd timing, but it makes sense for Apple to bring the iOS 13.1 beta to developers now, before iOS 13 actually ships.

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On Tuesday, Apple released a new iOS beta for developers, and it was a bit of a shocker, because it wasn’t an iOS 13 beta, but an iOS 13.1 beta. This raises a lot of issues about how Apple is approaching its impending releases of new hardware, its relationship with beta testers, and how it approaches overall software quality.

Not the first time

This is hardly the first time Apple has yanked features it promised when unveiling a new iOS release at its Worldwide Developer Conference (WWDC). Last year, Messages in the Cloud was pulled, and Group Facetime and AirPlay 2 also didn’t make it to the ship date, only to return later in the year.

This summer Apple has been pulling features out of iOS 13 betas along the way, including features that have now reappeared in the iOS 13.1 beta—Maps ETAs, audio sharing between multiple Bluetooth headphones/earbuds, and automations in Shortcuts.

What’s different this year is that Apple is plowing ahead with its beta program, even though iOS 13 isn’t yet released. This is great news for developers who need time with those features, since they can immediately begin testing them on iOS 13.1 rather than waiting around for iOS 13 to ship so that a new beta cycle can begin. But it’s also generating extra complexity, because those developers may now need to install different versions of iOS 13 on different devices in order to test on iOS 13.1 while also verifying that their software runs normally on iOS 13, which will presumably ship next month. It’s complicated.

This is the new stuff

Apple’s most important iOS device, the iPhone, ships in the fall, and for better or worse, Apple has decided to sync its annual operating-system updates to the iPhone’s release. What’s great about this is that Apple gets a second chance to tout all the great new features of iOS at its biggest media event of the year, making them part of the larger story about what’s in the new iPhone.

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This year, the relesae of iOS 13 will come at the same time as the new iPhone.

The new hardware also generally demands a new version of the operating system to support new features—this year the rumors say it will be a third, wide-angle camera on the back of the premium iPhone models, as well as improvements to control over video while recording.

So if you’re Apple, what happens if the pace of your iOS development is lagging? If there’s an item at the very top of Apple’s must-do list every year, it’s ship the new iPhone models. And while shipping a new piece of hardware without one of its key feature isn’t without precedent—the iPhone 7 Plus’s brand-new Portrait Mode was only enabled by a later software update—it’s far from ideal.

Apple ends up having to approach the fall’s software release in one of two ways. It either plans a final version of iOS 12 that also adds support for the new hardware, or it gives itself the option of ripping not-ready-for-prime-time features out of iOS 13 so that the software can be released on time. It seems pretty clear that Apple has chosen the second option here.

As I wrote this time last year, there’s nothing wrong with considering Apple’s iOS 13 announcements a statement of intent that Apple will be adding those features to iOS in the next year—not that they’ll all end up shipping on day one. It’s a healthy and realistic attitude that allows Apple to maintain a higher standard of software quality without punting features back an entire year.

Parallel is better

Of course, you may be asking yourself, why does Apple do this to itself? Why, in the course of a few weeks in the fall, does Apple always seem to ship new iPhones, Apple Watches, iPad Pros, and OS updates for iOS, iPadOS, watchOS, and macOS?

The answer is that because Apple is maintaining an entire ecosystem that works across different operating systems, it’s generally better to roll out new services or features across all its platforms at once. This year, Reminders and Shortcuts are two good examples of this. Both apps are major upgrades to previous versions, and they sync their data via iCloud. If Apple only updated iOS in September, the iPad would be unable to sync Shortcuts properly with iPhones. If the Mac didn’t get a software update at relatively close to the same time as iOS, your Reminders wouldn’t sync properly. It’s better if every device steps forward together.

What are we testing?

If I have one question about Apple’s move to release an iOS 13.1 beta on Tuesday, it would involve how it sees the role of its beta testers. Has iOS 13 gone final, or will there be more betas of that? And if so, who will see them? Will users on the public beta program get updated to iOS 13.1, or will they stay on 13.0 until the final version comes out? What versions of iOS to developers test against, and can they go back to iOS 13.0 if they need to test on that version?

And since my iPad Pro updated to iOS 13.1 this morning, does it mean that people on the developer-beta train will literally never run the final version of iOS 13.0? That’s a weird feeling. But it might be one we all need to get used to.

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