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Why automatic app updates in iOS isn’t a good idea

A few weeks ago, I was browsing Zite and came across an article at Redmond Pie that explains how to automatically apply app updates to a jailbroken iOS device using a package called Auto App Updater.

Not longer after, I listened to an episode of The Menu Bar podcast which discussed why auto updates in iOS would be a great benefit.

I disagree. I don’t think Apple should ever implement automatic updates for 3rd-party apps for three very good reasons.

It’s important to note that OS X has options to not only automatically download any updates in the background but also install them as well. This only applies to OS X incremental updates (such as 10.8.1, 10.8.2) as well as camera support, printer drivers and security patches. These are necessary to ensure the stability and security of OS X as well as include additional support for newer devices.

New versions of iOS aren’t automatically updated but there are many other factors that would prevent this with battery life, free space and data connectivity being three reasons I can think of straight away.

Now, what Software Update in OS X doesn’t do is download and install 3rd-party App updates automatically. The user still has to approve each app update, alternatively there’s a handy Update All button, just like the App Store does.

Pulling Features

So why shouldn’t there be a way to automatically update 3rd-party apps? I’ll give you one example: iCloud.

iCloud’s recent problems is just one example that illustrates why app updates shouldn’t be automated. Let’s imagine iOS does support automatic updates and that you’re using a simple money tracking app that syncs via iCloud. All your transaction are saved and stored using iCloud and you even have the app on both iPhone and iPad. You don’t necessarily use it daily, but it’s an app you might use a couple of times a month and, overall, it works fine.

However, your experience is not the norm. In fact, most users of this app are experiencing all kinds of problems with missing transactions, slow syncing and just general suckiness. It gets to the point that the developer is experiencing such a negative reaction because of something they has no control over, they develop their own syncing engine and aims to switch from iCloud.

The developer, in an attempt to combat the negative reaction they’ve been getting, release version 2.0 of the finance app which now uses their own sync engine instead of iCloud. In the release notes for the update, they state that using the new app will mean that iCloud isn’t available and any transactions stored therein won’t be accessible. You’re encouraged to backup any data beforehand so you can load it back in to the new version.

Now, because you had auto updates turned on, your iOS device immediately downloaded the latest version as soon as it became available. The next time you launch the app, all your transactions have disappeared because they’re on iCloud.

Is this possible? Yep. It happened to Jumsoft, developers of the popular personal finance app Money for Mac and iOS. In January 2013 they issued an apology when they had to pull iCloud syncing because it just plain didn’t work. Instead, Money can be synced between Mac and iOS via Wi-Fi Sync.

Feature Changes

Developers will always find ways to improve their apps for their customers. Sometimes an existing feature is changed, much to the dismay of some of their older customers. Without auto-updates, you’re not forced to update. When Skitch was acquired by Evernote, many of Skitch’s users lamented at some features that were changed or removed in the Mac app. Many chose not to update to Skitch 2.0, instead keeping the older version since they felt it worked better.

Critical Flaws

In February 2013, Amazon released an update to their hugely popular Kindle iOS app. Unfortunately, this update came with one small problem: it would wipe your entire Kindle library off your iOS device.

Luckily, Amazon’s Kindle service hosts all books in the cloud so users didn’t lose any content but what if it wasn’t stored elsewhere? What if this was a todo app and it happened? Not having automatic updates wouldn’t prevent this but at least it could be highlighted in the release notes and you’d (hopefully) hear about before manually applying the update1.

The only argument I’ve heard for having automatic updates is just so a user doesn’t have to launch the App Store and tap “Update All”. Is doing that really that time consuming and difficult?

  1. I’m not an iOS developer but I assume if the bug was catastrophic then you could temporarily pull the app from the store which means no-one can update – but no-one can purchase it, either.