Pixel Envy

Written by Nick Heer.

A More Incremental iOS

One of the more noticeable changes in recent iOS releases is just how many of them there are. There were ten versions each of iOS 6 and 7, but there were sixteen versions of iOS 11, and fifteen of iOS 12.

iOS 13 has distinguished itself by racing to a x.2 version number faster than any other iOS release family — on October 28 — and has received two further version increments since. This rapid-fire pace of updates has been noticeable, to say the least, and helps illustrate a shift in the way iOS releases are handled.

Which brings me to a confession: I’ve slightly misled you. Merely counting the number of software updates isn’t necessarily a fair way of assessing how rapidly each version changes. For example, while both iOS 6 and 7 had ten versions each, they were clustered in low version numbers. iOS 6 had three 6.0 releases and, oddly, a whole bunch under 6.1; iOS 7’s were the reverse.1

In fact, it used to be the case that iOS rarely breached the x.2 release cycle at all. The first version to get to an x.3 release was iOS 4, but that was also the year that the company merged iPhone and iPad versions in 4.2. You have to skip all the way to iOS 8 to find another x.3 release; after that, though, every version of iOS has gotten to x.3, and iOS 8, 10, and 11 have each seen a series of x.4 releases as well.

iOS 13 is currently at 13.2.3; the developer beta is at 13.3, and 13.4 is being tested internally. Excluding the beta seeds, there have already been eight versions of iOS 13 released so far, and it has been available to the general public for less than three months.

And, again, just looking at the number of versions belies the impact of their contents. In addition to myriad bug fixes, iOS 13’s updates have introduced or reintroduced features that were announced at WWDC, but which did not appear in the gold master of 13.0. A similar pattern occurred with iOS 11 and 12: Apple announced, demoed, and often even released into beta features that were ultimately pulled from the x.0 version, before reappearing in a later update.

This indicates a shift in Apple’s product release strategy — not just from monumental updates to iterative ones, but also from just-in-time feature announcements to early previews. At WWDC, the iOS announcement was implied to be an indication of everything that would be available in the x.0 release; now, it’s a peek at everything that will be available across the entire release cycle.

I do not think that this is inherently problematic, or even concerning. But, so far, it does not seem to be a deliberate strategy. From the outside, it feels far more like an accidental result of announcing features too early — a predictable consequence of which is that announcements may have to be walked back. There are plenty of examples of this in Apple’s history, as well as the tech market and other industries as a whole. But you may recall that Apple’s push notification service was announced for an iPhone OS 2 release, but it was pushed back to iPhone OS 3 due to scalability concerns. So, this is not a new problem, but it is a more frequent concern lately, as features are increasingly deferred to later software updates.

I would rather features be stable; I do not think there is any reason that Apple should rush to release something before it’s ready. But I do wish this new strategy came across as a deliberate choice rather than what I perceive to be a lack of internal coordination.


  1. I’ve experienced the tedium of plotting the iOS version release history as a spreadsheet so you don’t have to. ↩︎