iOS/iPadOS 14: Apple may be heading for a Windows 7 situation
But a fragmented user base might not be such a bad thing for the company's bottom line
WWDC 2021 echoes are still heard across the Web, apparently, and one of the most interesting tidbits unearthed by some media outlets a couple of days after the developers sessions ended and the conference wrapped up, is this: Apple will give iPhone and iPad users an option it has never given before. Come fall, everyone now using iOS 14.6 and iPadOS 14.6 can either upgrade to iOS/iPadOS 15, or... remain on iOS/iPadOS 14 and never upgrade to the newest version of those operating systems.
It is a choice that surprised a lot of people and for good reason: Apple never exactly forces consumers into installing the newest version of its mobile operating systems, but it practically does by not supporting the old one with security updates. There have been some exceptions here and there, yes: serious security vulnerabilities that absolutely had to be patched on older devices as well as the more recent ones. But, as a rule, the only version getting updates regularly over the period of the year between two iOS/iPadOS versions is the new one, not the previous ones.
Every new iPhone and iPad model sold after, say, mid-October will obviously come with iOS/iPadOS 15 preinstalled. But older models still in inventory, as well as iPhones and iPads in the hands of consumers already, can very well remain on iOS 14 forever, with Apple providing security updates - only security updates - "for the foreseeable future". What this phrase means in practical terms will become clear in time but, regardless, it is an option that simply wasn't there before.
Anyone can speculate as to why Apple chose to give that option now. Many believe that the Cupertino giant just wants to keep as many of its older devices as possible in the market so their owners can use the App Store, subscribe to services and contribute to the company's bottom line. This seems to imply that Apple already knows iOS/iPadOS 15 will not perform as well as iOS/iPadOS 14 on smartphones and tablets as old as iPhone 6S (!) or iPad Air 2 (!), so it's giving their owners a "way out" - with security updates included nonetheless. Not bad at all.
Apple's choice is all the more noteworthy because it probably comes with a cost. The Cupertino giant always likes to play up how high the percentage of active devices running the latest version of its operating systems is. That percentage will most probably be affected in the case of iOS/iPadOS 15, as many people might feel that their current devices perform well with iOS 14 and upgrading to a more demanding operating system could change that. So an unknown number of those might choose to never upgrade, causing the first real case of fragmentation in Apple's user base.
If this sounds familiar, it's because it is: Microsoft went through the same situation with Windows 7 in 2015. The company offered to all Windows 7 users the option to upgrade to Windows 10 for free but most of them didn't, for a variety of reasons - one of them being the concern of degraded OS performance on older hardware. It was a valid reason that kept the percentage of Windows 7 active installations in the total Windows global user base unusually high (over 25%-30%) for five long years. It was not until Microsoft officially stopped supporting Windows 7, at the beginning of 2020, that this percentage dropped to less than 15%-20%. Not the prettiest picture for a software company, having one-fifth of its customers on an OS released all the way back in 2009.
Apple will probably want to avoid putting itself in this position, so it will be interesting to find out how long it plans to support all the devices capable of using iOS/iPadOS 14 with security updates. A year? Three years? Five? There are arguments to be made for and against keeping these devices around as long as possible, so we'll just have to wait and see.
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