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Inside Apple's 2011: iOS, Apps & iCloud

This year, Apple hit a new milestone of 250 million iOS devices while shipping its fifth reference release of its mobile platform that now offers a library of half of a million apps that have seen 18 billion downloads, now automated via iCloud.

iOS distribution

Like other mobile platforms (including Google's Android, Microsoft's Windows Phone 7, RIM's BlackBerry OS, Nokia's Symbian or HP's webOS), Apple doesn't earn any revenues from charging its users for system software updates.

Unlike its competitors, however, Apple actually delivers its regular, free iOS updates to the majority of the installed base frequently and on a timely basis. Within 2011, Apple shipped a dozen free updates for its mobile iOS platform before releasing iOS 5 in October and a followup 5.0.1 update. Those releases were made available to all iOS users the same day (apart from one release specific to the Verizon CDMA iPhone).

In comparison, Google released three updates to its summer 2010 Android 2.2 Froyo; five updates to last year's winter Android 2.3 Gingerbread; five releases exclusive to Android 3.0 Honeycomb tablets, and three updates of the new Android 4.0 (which currently only works on its own Galaxy Nexus model, and won't be rolled out to other 2011 model year devices for months--and is very unlikely to ever become available for phones over a year old).

Android device manufacturers and their mobile carriers were hesitant to actually make Google's updates available to their users however, as few of the updates were substantial enough to warrant the complex texting and specialized work needed to make the generic Android code work on the scores of different Android models, leaving the Android platform fractionalized with (at the start of December) 47 percent of active Android Market smartphone users still on an early-2010 version of Android (equivalent to iOS 3).

Google is not just failing to make as many updates available, but its "open" Android ecosystem is actually preventing updates that are released from making their way to users. Further, vendors and carriers are adding their own software on top of Android that has been found to open up security flaws and allow malware to bypass the permissions controls Google invented to let users protect themselves from the inherently dangerous nature of the unmanaged library of apps it makes available in its Android Market.

Microsoft, RIM, Nokia and HP combined released fewer updates for their users than Apple, and of those, only Microsoft bothered to make its updates broadly available to the entire installed base. Of course, Microsoft also erased backward support for all Windows Mobile 6.x devices at the end of last year when it introduced its Windows Phone 7 successor, leaving it with a very limited number of users to address.

iOS' pace of progress in 2011

Apple's 2011 releases of iOS kicked off to support the new CDMA iPhone 4 for Verizon in February, followed by the iOS 4.3 release in March that was introduced alongside iPad 2. Rather than just adding support for the new model, however, that update introduced significant new features ranging from AirPlay video support for third party apps, a much faster Nitro JavaScript engine for Safari, enhanced video playback "scrubber" controls, support for streaming content from a local PC via iTunes Home Sharing, "Personal Hotspot" WiFi tethering on the iPhone, and new FaceTime support for the iPod touch and iPad 2.

In addition to releasing system software, Apple also introduced new iOS apps, including the free PhotoBooth for iPad 2 and the iLife apps GarageBand and iMovie, initially released with iPad 2 and later made available for iPhone and iPod touch users in the fall. Apple similarly made its iWork suite of Pages, Keynote and Numbers iOS apps, initially released alongside the original iPad in 2010, available for iPhone and iPod touch users in May.

GarageBand 4

Apple also introduced some controversy-arousing new policies for its App Store this year, including rules that prevent apps from linking to external purchase options (such as for in app content or subscriptions) without providing an alternative way for users to also buy the same thing through the App Store.

Apple also rankled some publishers with new subscription policies that allowed the user to decide whether wanted to share his or her personal information with the publisher when subscribing through the App Store. Despite initial fears that subscribers would mostly opt out, it was later reported that "fear that Apple’s policies would deny them the consumer data they need to do business was unfounded."

A third tempest in a teapot for iOS in 2011 was the Locationgate crisis, kicked off by two researchers who discovered a database of location information on the iPhone that appeared to map a path of where users had taken their device. The matter ended up being the subject of a federal investigation. Steve Jobs addressed the issue personally, explaining the issues involved to users in a public statement that mirrored the "Antenangate" brouhaha of 2010.

Jobs outlined how iOS had pioneered the safeguarding of location data from third party apps, requiring user permissions and offering users control over how their location data is used in a way unmatched by other vendors. He also promised updates in iOS and iTunes to better handle how location data was cached.

On page 2 of 2: iOS 5