Apple exploring over-the-air updates for iOS 5?

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Mark Gurman from 9to5Mac is hearing that Apple and Verizon are discussing over-the-air (OTA) software updates for iOS 5. Google's Android and HP/Palm's webOS have been doing OTA OS updates for a while now, and Apple has done OTA carrier file updates, but when it comes to iOS the only option thus far has been complete firmware updates via iTunes.

Multiple sources say the new feature will debut in iOS 5, meaning iOS 5 will not come over-the-air but following point updates to it will. Just like tethering in iOS 3, Apple has the technology but cannot just unleash it everywhere. Apple and Verizon Wireless are said to have been in talks over these wireless software updates since early this year. Sources could not comment on whether or not Apple is negotiating similar deals with AT&T or international iPhone carriers.

And according to Chronic Dev-Team founder, Chronic, it may have been in the works for a while:

I can say quite a bit of code to allow OTA updates has been on the OS for awhile

Chpwn adds:

MobileSoftwareUpdate.framework has been there since iOS 4, but is only "fleshed out" with daemons, etc on the Apple TV.

And iH8ns0w:

there is strong evidence that OTA updates could be coming. Ramdisks have been getting shipped w/o encryption. The AES engine is disabled when it reaches kernel state. So, it cannot decrypt images in iOS.

Apple TV (2010) already does OTA updates for iOS, though it's secured to a power source at all times. Apple provided Mac OS X Lion's developer preview via the Mac App Store, so it's not inconceivable that future iOS updates could come via the iOS App Store either.

Step by step Apple has been dismantling the iTunes tether dependency. Could OTA updates be the next big leap?

[9to5Mac, @chronic, @chpwn, @iH8sn0w]

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Rene Ritchie

EiC of iMore, EP of Mobile Nations, Apple analyst, co-host of Debug, Iterate, Vector, Review, and MacBreak Weekly podcasts. Cook, grappler, photon wrangler. Follow him on Twitter and Google+.

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Reader comments

Apple exploring over-the-air updates for iOS 5?


It introduces more things to go wrong. It's already a crapshoot at the PC & itunes and having backups on hand.

Id hope this was in conjunction with, not in place of traditional firmware updates... id hate to have to rely on my carrier to get non carrier related updates, because you just know they are going to sit on them rather then get them out to you asap. Apple has a vested interest in getting updates out, carriers less so....

I don't see how any of these would be allowed over 3G... Anyone ever tried downloading a 700 MB file on 3G before?

I agree, I loved how easy it was on my sidekick. A lot of people don't even care to update due to being lazy about having to plug in and sync and update through the computer, I think this would drive a lot more people to actually be up to date with the current iOS at all times.

Well there's more than just laziness to account for not updating frequently. There's jailbreakers of course but there's also the whole having to download half a gig of data for what amounts to a patch quality update.

No way! I just left Android and that was one of the main things i hated about it. Verizon testing (sitting on) updates for months at a time. I love being able to get an update the day it comes out not 6 months later when Verizon decides it's fit.

Yea I'm not a big fan of OTA, when I had a android I would sometimes be waiting a long time for an update while my friend would have already had it. I think how it should be offered is iTunes update comes out then for those who don't update they get an OTA notification a week or two later.

Oh and never FORCE us to update, some of us like to use our phones the way they should be(jailbroken)

Please please no... Takes so long to download big files like that over 3G... And if I'm gonna connect to my home wifi, I might as well just plug it in and back it up also

I don't want it at all, but as for 3G, I tethered my laptop last night and downloaded the 666.2mb 4.3.3 file in 30 mins. And that's on crappy Voda AU!

They should allow it OTA over WiFi, just like Android phones do. Then carriers wouldn't have to be involved. Having to update via plugging into iTunes is a real pain. It makes the iPhone a PC-companion rather than a stand-alone device.

How's that going to work with people with data caps that aren't grandfathered in to unlimited??? I'm on unlimited but those who aren't need some relief when these are released.

Good point, also I remember when I had my driod global in Jan and I had an update, hit the update button via 3G and it would move super slow. Best part, it would fail after it finally loads up. I tried wifi, then it would fail at the middle, making me just get fed up and that would be the only way to update. It's okay, but I think both options should be available. Also, like one guy on top mention, goodbye jailbreak. I remember when I was using my G1 when I had tmobile and I got an update right when I was texting. I hit the update button by mistake and it updated. I lost my root ability and got my phone frozen for stopping the update process. How many people will this happen too? I think I'm going to pass on iOS 5.0 and OTA. I hated it on Android, and even more when I hit update and it said no update was there when I know it was. It's just not a good experience to me.

New firmware over air is a long way away. We will see over the air syncing with iTunes first.

Figures that Verizon would be first to allow OTA updates. AT&T is deathly afraid of using their network. That why YouTube displays at such a low bitrate over 3G, we can't download anything over 20MB over 3G, & FaceTime has to be on wifi.

I personally think that if apple comes out with OTA updates they will do it only for small updates and will not completely overhaul the firmware unless there is a major update.

I agree with sn0wman. Downloading a ~600 MB update OTA is pretty crazy. I think Apple could switch over to patch updates--small OTA updates for things like 4.3.3. I think a small patch-type update for the jump between 4.3.2 and 4.3.3 would have sufficed.

Not sure how this work OTA as when you do it tethered the update is unpacked first on the PC/MAC then installed to the device. Doin this on the device will either require space in the storage area or the unpackaged update to be smaller than the RAM on the device itself. I am pro this method but maybe this hurdle is why it has taken so long or it may be a function/utilisation of the new cloud storage/mobile me upgrade and data centre!

I don't think just out of no where Apple is going to start patching. Downloading a 500MB update OTA is not going to work. I think we will see the iPhone 5 before we see OTA updates and Apple changing the way they update.

All the major changes in Android have been pushed out via OTA updates, there is no real reason why Apple couldn't do this with iOS. Sure, it would mean changing their procedure but there is currently no real advantage to using that procedure anyway.

Maybe I'm alone in this, but I've had some bad luck with software updates for my 3GS. 1 out of 5 point updates for me has sent my iPhone into crash situations, where I've had to do complete resets to factory defaults, the install from backup. I assume that OTA updates wouldn't have a backup before update function. For me this is a deal breaker!

As a recent convert from Blackberry on Verizon to iPhone on Verizon, OTA updates make me very nervous. They were invariably an unmitigated disaster every time for BB via VZW. Both BB and VZW tech support ALWAYS counseled against using OTA updates in favor of BB Desktop (the equiv of synching with iTunes). I tried it once and ended up having to completely rebuild my BB from OS to apps and data; never again.

It could work for minor updates 4.2 to 4.3 but major updates like 4.0 to 5.0 would probably be better through iTunes.

If they can make it "free" as in it's not part of my bandwidth allotment and painless as in an opt-in low level background download process, I can see it working. This should be the way to do it.
If it is a patch process instead of a replacing the whole OS process, I think that'll be a headache for all involved.
Going through iTunes is the best way to do it overall, so they should maintain that. People who think supporting OS updates through iTunes is a disadvantage are crazy.

All the comments above about large files over 3G, etc...Apple should do it like it is done on Android and allow you to select Wi-Fi or Wi-Fi/3G [or 4G, pending the carrier]. It allows you to choose when and how to download.

Oh and let me add, OTA for iOS would be a great move. It is needed for sure. +1 for removing one more tethering requirement. iOS users would love the freedom of no tethering to iTunes.

Did anyone notice they OTA'd the Facebook app? They did that without a full app update through the app store and just did it on the back end then rolled it out.