Apple sneakily thwarts own attempt to serve users

The head­line is mis­lead­ing, inas­much as it is dif­fi­cult to believe that this was either acci­den­tal or an attempt to serve users. «Sneak­i­ly» is sort of mis­lead­ing too. «Bril­liant­ly decep­tive» fits bet­ter. Makes for a real­ly awk­ward head­line, though.

One of the con­tentious aspects of Apple’s App Store (both the iOS and OS X fla­vors) is the lack of sup­port for appli­ca­tion upgrade paths. This has some short-term cus­tomer ben­e­fits; for exam­ple, app upgrades are usu­al­ly free. When a devel­op­er thinks it is time to get paid for a new ver­sion said devel­op­er must cre­ate a whole new app, which cus­tomers have to buy all over again. There­fore peo­ple who pur­chased WhizBan­gApp ver­sion 5.7 and want to con­tin­ue to have sup­port­ed soft­ware, must buy WhizBan­gApp 2 ver­sion 1.0.

Apple does­n’t offi­cial­ly have a way to offer dis­counts for peo­ple with ear­li­er ver­sions upgrad­ing to a new­er one, either. But there are clever devel­op­ers like the devel­op­ers of Goodread­er who have fig­ured out that they can offer an App Bun­dle with the old ver­sion and the new one, where peo­ple who have already pur­chased one part of the bun­dle pay a low­er price to com­plete the bundle.

«Lega­cy» iOS devices (almost any­thing old­er than about two years1) have his­tor­i­cal­ly been strand­ed, not only by Apple but also by app devel­op­ers who update exist­ing apps, tar­get­ing ver­sions of iOS which make them poten­tial­ly incom­pat­i­ble with — and there­fore unavail­able to — peo­ple run­ning old­er ver­sions of iOS.

Note the word poten­tial­ly above. The way that Apple’s appli­ca­tion devel­op­er tools work, in order to make an appli­ca­tion for the App Store, you must cre­ate tar­gets in your project for each ver­sion of the OS. As APIs change, main­tain­ing these sep­a­rate tar­gets becomes bur­den­some, espe­cial­ly for small­er devel­op­ers. The API hooks that an appli­ca­tion actu­al­ly uses may not have changed between revi­sions, but the devel­op­er must treat each revi­sion sep­a­rate­ly. Devel­op­ers want­i­ng to use new fea­tures of iOS often have to choose between lega­cy sup­port and new fea­tures unless they want to put a con­sid­er­able amount of time in to pre­serv­ing lega­cy support.

His­tor­i­cal­ly, the only way to install old­er ver­sions of an iOS app which might be com­pat­i­ble with one’s old­er device required jail­break­ing the device, some­thing most users won’t do.2

A new hope

Back in Sep­tem­ber of 2013 Apple-friend­ly blogs every­where demon­strat­ed the depths of their Stock­holm syn­drome by heap­ing praise on Apple for some­thing that they should have done from the begin­ning: allow­ing the instal­la­tion of the lat­est sup­port­ed ver­sion of an app if the newest ver­sion can­not be installed on the iOS ver­sion of a par­tic­u­lar device. Apple snuck this fea­ture out with­out much men­tion, but once it was known this fact made the rounds.

The empire strikes back (at us)

Though many peo­ple were pleased at the new­found abil­i­ty to redown­load their apps, oth­ers were dis­ap­point­ed to find that when they tried to install an old­er app, instead of the new «Down­load an old­er ver­sion of this app?» mes­sage, were still greet­ed with, «You must update to iOS 7.0 (or what­ev­er ver­sion) in order to down­load and use this appli­ca­tion.» Many users, ini­tial­ly cel­e­brat­ing at the oppor­tu­ni­ty to, for exam­ple, watch stream­ing Net­flix movies on their first-gen­er­a­tion iPad, found that Apple still would not allow them.

Though I have a third-gen­er­a­tion iPad for my per­son­al use, I also have a first-gen­er­a­tion iPad3 which I keep for test­ing. I use it infre­quent­ly, but thanks to a project where I have to sup­port the old­er devices I start­ed to poke around on the first-gen iPad.

A friend (we’ll call him Sam because that is his name) has a first-gen­er­a­tion iPad as well, but unlike mine, his is the tablet that he actu­al­ly uses4. It was giv­en to him when a mutu­al friend bought her iPad Mini, and since he has found him­self frus­trat­ed by the lim­it­ed selec­tion of apps avail­able. See­ing first­hand that he was unable to install apps, I assumed that what I had heard about Apple per­mit­ting lega­cy ver­sions to be installed was sim­ply wish­ful think­ing and/or mis­heard rumor. We’ve talked sev­er­al times about jail­break­ing the device, or find­ing some way to fool it into installing some old ver­sion of some apps that he could­n’t get.

Return of the (i)Jedi

Hav­ing retrieved the first-gen iPad from the (fig­u­ra­tive) moth­balls, I tried my hand at find­ing appli­ca­tions that I could install. At first my efforts were stymied; indeed the appli­ca­tions that are avail­able for iOS 5 or below are few and far between.

Some­times with Apple what seems like it ought to work does­n’t. This is often done in the name of sim­plic­i­ty. Sim­i­lar­ly in the name of sim­plic­i­ty, some­times Apple makes things work even while they tell you that it won’t.

From the first-gen­er­a­tion iPad, all the descrip­tions of apps on the App Store sound depress­ing: requires iOS ver­sion 6, or 7, or 8. There is no men­tion that one might pro­cure an ear­li­er ver­sion. And as Sam found out, attempt­ing to install those apps result­ed in a dis­ap­point­ing message.

That is, of course, until I tried it. On my iPad, at least on some apps, I was pre­sent­ed the oppor­tu­ni­ty to down­load the lat­est ver­sion that would be com­pat­i­ble with my device. Soon enough, I had a num­ber of those appli­ca­tions my friend can­not install: PCalc, Byword, Drop­box, Spi­derOak, Note­file, Telegram, 2Do, iSSH, own­Cloud… all of which are unavail­able on iOS 5.

Think­ing that some­thing had recent­ly changed to make the promised lega­cy ver­sion avail­abil­i­ty hap­pen, I asked Sam to give it anoth­er try. Again he was frus­trat­ed to find that he could not install those apps on his first-gen iPad which I had just installed on my own first-gen iPad.

The dif­fer­ence: when I tried to install those apps, the store knew that I had already bought them. I’ve been using iOS for years. Most of the apps I’d have any inter­est in (and I few that I don’t) I’ve already bought.

It turns out that Apple will let you down­load the newest com­pat­i­ble ver­sion of an app so long as you’ve already bought it. It will not allow you to buy an app so that you can down­load an ear­li­er version.

In true intu­itive Apple form, they’ll let you have it so long as you don’t want to pay them for it.5

The log­ic is fair­ly obvi­ous: Apple does have some respon­si­bil­i­ty not to yank the rug out from under the feet of the peo­ple who have already paid for soft­ware. But the faster the hard­ware becomes obso­lete, the faster they sell more units. This scheme is essen­tial­ly a way to dis­cour­age peo­ple from get­ting sec­ond­hand iOS devices. A first-gen iPad with the soft­ware avail­able for it is basi­cal­ly no more than a web brows­er that you can hold in your hand. But a first-gen iPad for which you can get the apps that made it use­ful, that could have a lot of life left in it. Every device more than two years old that still lets peo­ple do the things they want is a brand-new device that Apple won’t sell. Or at least, that’s the thinking.

Then it occurred to me: some of the apps I’d installed over the past cou­ple of days are apps that I installed after I had my third-gen iPad. So here is the ques­tion of the day: can I install an app on a com­pat­i­ble device, then install the old­er ver­sion on the old­er device? Turns out the answer is yes.

To test, I had to find an app that had been around for a while and which I had nev­er installed. Well, I nev­er had a Net­flix account until I got a gift card for Net­flix for my birth­day at the end of the year. It’s one of the apps Sam was hop­ing to be able to run on his iPad and it’s one I’ve nev­er installed.

First, I had to make sure that despite hav­ing down­loaded lega­cy ver­sions of oth­er apps that Apple would pre­vent me from installing Net­flix. A quick trip to the App Store con­firmed: my attempt to install the Net­flix app result­ed in a mes­sage telling me I had to upgrade to iOS 7 in order to install it.

So I went to my new­er iPad, installed the Net­flix app, went back to the first-gen iPad and tapped on the «get» but­ton. This time, the App Store asked me if I’d like to down­load the most recent com­pat­i­ble ver­sion. And you know what? this 2010 iPad, pur­chased less than two weeks after they first went on sale, still streams high-def­i­n­i­tion video excep­tion­al­ly well. Bet­ter than my third-gen iPad which, due to hav­ing to con­trol four times as many pix­els and cram ten times as much oper­at­ing sys­tem over­head into four times as much mem­o­ry, can’t play an already-down­loaded video unless I put it in air­plane mode. If the iPad tries to do as much net­work activ­i­ty as receiv­ing an instant mes­sage at the same time video is play­ing, it will crash and spend over ten min­utes rebooting.

Lega­cy ver­sions of apps for old­er ver­sions of iOS does not require a jail­break or DMCA vio­la­tions. All that’s required is to have a friend with a new­er iOS device who likes you enough let you sign in on their device and buy the app you want. Lat­er, install the old ver­sion on your old device. I’m guess­ing that means back­ing up friend’s device, wip­ing it clean, rein­stalling with your account, and then restor­ing from your friend’s back­up. That would have to be a friend who liked you a lot, but it’s far from impos­si­ble. Alter­nate­ly there are a lot of peo­ple out there who are buy­ing new­er devices. Maybe catch one of them before they sell their old one, but after they have wiped it.

The idea of reward­ing Apple for this per­verse pol­i­cy is trou­bling. More trou­bling, how­ev­er, is the thought of let­ting them get away with enforc­ing the planned obsole­cence of their devices. I’d rather see them get a few bucks here and there than see per­fect­ly good hard­ware go to waste. Besides, there are a lot of free apps out there which this pol­i­cy pre­vents a new own­er of an old­er device from enjoying.

It’s bad enough that the march of tech­nol­o­gy makes old­er devices seem obso­lete, even when they are still capa­ble of amaz­ing and use­ful things. It’s slimy of Apple to pre­ma­ture­ly kneecap the use­ful life of their own prod­ucts in hopes of sell­ing new ones or at least pre­vent­ing the life of the old ones in the after­mar­ket. One way or anoth­er, we ought to keep these devices run­ning and make sure that peo­ple can use them with the soft­ware that is avail­able, even if that soft­ware is a ver­sion or two back.

  1. The old­est iOS devices to sup­port iOS 8: iPhone 5 was released Sep­tem­ber 21, 2012; iPod Touch (5th gen­er­a­tion) was released Octo­ber 11, 2012; iPad 2 was released March 11, 2011, mean­ing that the cur­rent revi­sion of iOS can be run on only one mod­el of iOS device old­er than two and a third years old, and zero as old as four years. 
  2. By the way, apps can be removed from the App Store entire­ly, not only pre­vent­ing peo­ple from pur­chas­ing lega­cy ver­sions but mak­ing it impos­si­ble for peo­ple who already pur­chased the soft­ware to rein­stall. The beloved Pock­et­Money can­not be down­loaded from Apple by any means. (The trag­ic pass­ing of Hardy Mar­cia, Pock­et­Money’s devel­op­er and an pio­neer of hand­held com­put­ing — unfor­tu­nate­ly leaves the app unsup­port­ed any­how.) 
  3. Fun fact: the «top end» orig­i­nal iPad (the one with 3G wire­less in addi­tion to WiFi) was mod­el A1337. If you don’t get the sig­nif­i­cance of that, you may not be 1337
  4. Also, it’s mod­el A1219, which rais­es the ques­tion whether Apple real­ly had one hun­dred and eigh­teen prod­ucts to num­ber in between the Wifi iPad and the Wifi/3G iPad, both released the same day. 
  5. To be fair, they won’t let you have it if it’s free, either. 

One Reply to “Apple sneakily thwarts own attempt to serve users”

  1. i‑Pad iOS
    While I don’t under­stand, or need to, the tech­ni­cal part of your arti­cle, if I get the bot­tom line, then if I get an iPhone 6, my now-one-year-old mini should­n’t become obso­lete. I’ll be able to down­load apps on the phone, then get them for the mini, right? You should get a job with Apple. Maybe you could change their way of think­ing. Then again, maybe you’d just end up hor­ri­bly frustrated.

    I’m glad to read about what you’re actu­al­ly doing with the old­er iPad, AND the Net­flix sub­scrip­tion! Makes me feel like I did a good thing. I’m amazed that the old­er iPad does so well with Net­flix. I nev­er thought of that! Oh, and, thanks for putting the “Fig­u­ra­tive­ly” in front of “moth balls!”(teehee)

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