in Apple, iOS, kvetch, tech

Automatic app updates are a bad idea. Apple should recognize this by now. In case you, dear reader, aren’t convinced of that, here are some simple reasons why automatic app updates are just no good –

  1. Software is buggy – how many times have you heard that “we shouldn’t get the dot zero version of that software”? It’s almost a maxim in the enterprise world – unless you deeply trust it to not break your current setup, don’t get that update. So why should we be so cavalier about software updates for our personal devices? We shouldn’t let developers decide the de facto time when we get an update.
  2. It’s a vehicle for disruption – and not the good kind. App updates are great if they’re well thought out, streamlined, and work. But more often than not, they introduce changes which wouldn’t sit well with you and your workflow. How many of us regret updating to some version of iOS that slowed down our devices to hell and there was no recourse? Why do we trust third party developers more than we trust Apple in this instance? If I don’t know exactly what is going to change in the update, why should I update it? Which leads me to the next point…
  3. Automatic app updates are evil – Yes, they’re evil. How many times has Facebook slipped in something nasty and you didn’t even know it till you got the update? There are two types of nasty Facebook has slipped into your devices over time – the first is when they change the user agreement. So often, we would go to the website and Facebook would make us check a box and hit Accept before letting us burst out our Likes and jealousy. We’ve all brushed past those to chat with our friends. The same applies to app updates. You open the app to answer the call of a notification and an annoying pop up tells you to just say YES before you can do what you came here to do. What option do you have other than to stab that yes button? The second nasty is the more insidious version – Facebook has been able to slip in all kinds of dirty code, tracking features, and nasty experiments into our apps simply by adopting frameworks that let them remotely update our apps, and by using vague release notes that just said “making some improvements”, even when they were shipping major changes to your Facebook and Instagram experiences. This must stop, and the easiest way to make them stop (even though we’re too far gone now thanks to their remote app update frameworks), is to stop automatic app updates.
  4. It’s bad for security – This goes against everything you’ve ever heard. “Automatically updating software is great! It keeps things secure!” Until, it doesn’t. Software is eating up our life and yet, pretty much all of us are rather careless about the security of our apps and services. For most technophobes, automatic app updates are both a boon, and an excuse to hide behind. “Hey, I keep my apps updated, but I still got hacked!” Well, did you consider 2FA? Did you try to understand whether you’re using insecure communication over insecure networks? Did your app have the requisite features to protect your privacy, like data encryption? Are you using the same password for fifty services? We would all be more knowledgeable about all those questions if we bothered to understand what goes on in the making of our apps, the design decisions taken by the devs, and the shortcuts they take to ship sooner. Which leads to the next point –
  5. It’s a surprise! – it feels great to open an app the first time in the day and notice that something has changed overnight, but more than once, I’ve been bitten by apps that changed their business models, removed features, and made decisions that affect me, without so much as bothering to explain that a change is coming. This attitude is a right that a developer feels about a piece of code that they’ve written, but it’s a piece of code that I licensed from them and is running on my machine. They should not be able to decide how that code changes for me. By removing automatic updates, we’re forcing developers to explain why we should be getting this new update, rather than letting them get away with “we removed bugs!” or the boilerplate crap big tech companies throw at us.

Until things change and developers become better documentation writers, and tech companies stop lying about the code they’re sneaking into our machines, I have one suggestion –

Don’t do automatic app updates. Do expiration-based ones instead.

Right now, automatic app updates are an all or nothing deal. You either trust Apple and third party devs completely, or your don’t. I fall in the latter category and I couldn’t be happier! I know that I’m gonna get exactly what I paid for an app (especially if it’s free), and it’s going to work exactly as I expect it to for a long time to come.

Well, almost. Apps often have massive API changes, or security updates that are absolutely essential. The only way for devs to push those through is to expire the version of app currently installed on your devices, and force you to update (when you open the app the next time, at the crucial moment when you actually need the app). I’ve seen a lot of important updates like this, like when my banks update their APIs, or my insurance firm tells me to get the update else I won’t get continued service, or my grocer decides that I can’t get to my weekly ‘one dollar off’ coupons until I get the latest and greatest app update they’ve pushed out.

OK, that last one is silly. Apps like my grocer and my insurance app should always work. If I’m in front of a cop who’s asking for my insurance info, it would suck if I have to tell her that I have to update my darn app before I can show it to her. Also, why the heck does my grocer need to update the app once a month? Haven’t they heard of APIs?

Situations like those cause me to propose the solution I’m presenting, though, it’s obvious that it should be taken with a pinch of salt, since it’s not the perfect solution.

Here’s what we should do –

Apps shouldn’t get auto-updated. Instead, this should be a deliberate process. We need to be able to approve everything that goes into our devices. Yet, some apps are essentials, and though I don’t open my insurance app every day, when I open it, I expect it to work instead of showing me a banner to update the app before I can continue. So those essential apps should have two options – either I let them auto update completely, or I let them update only when the app is marked as ‘expired’ by the developer. The benefit of the latter approach is that devs should have a legitimate reason, such as changing their API drastically, that should drive app updates. Does this put more strain on Apple’s app approval process? Yes. Let’s make them earn that 30% they take from the devs, and the hundreds of dollars of Apple tax they collect from us.

I’m not interested in the smaller updates. I’m interested in keeping my apps available when I need them. So if I can skip the small ones and only get the big, breaking news updates, I’ll be a happy camper.

But this may not suit everyone. Some people don’t care about how and what changes are coming to their devices, but that’s what got us into this mess before with Apple and the battery issue which Apple effectively cheated and lied to us about, and Facebook and every privacy scandal they’ve been able to walk away from.

I believe that if you want to remain that kind of person, you have the full right. So I would love to see all of these options incorporated into the next iOS, or the one after that. The future is customization and personalized feature sets for everyone. It’s more expensive due to that, but that’s just where we’re headed. Hopefully, we’ll get to enjoy some good software on the way.

What do you think?

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