Apple opens iOS public beta, but is that good news?

Apple opens iOS public beta, but is that good news?

Follows up last summer's OS X Yosemite public beta

Mac OS X debuted with a public beta, but for years Apple has taken a strict stance on prerelease software: It's for registered Apple developers only, and under a strict non-disclosure agreement. In the past year, though, this is one of those ways where the Tim Cook-era Apple has reconsidered its old policies and changed the rules.

Last summer the company let users register for an early access program that let them test early builds of the Yosemite release of OS X. And late last week, the company brought public betas to iOS as well. (Apple's developer beta program continues, and is interestingly out-of-sync with the public beta program. Basically, developers get to be the first on the firing line when it comes to new builds--so if there's something catastrophically wrong, the release can be halted before it reaches a wider and less technically savvy audience.)

Now, wide beta releases of core operating systems are probably quite familiar to Windows folks, but on the Apple side this is an exciting new development. And, I'll admit, a little scary.

On the Mac side, the Yosemite beta went pretty well. Apple is currently testing OS X 10.10.3, an update with the most notable feature of introducing its new Photos app and cloud photo syncing. I've been using 10.10.3 and Photos for quite a while now, and it's pretty stable. Apple also includes a special Feedback Assistant app to put a pretty face on Apple's bug database.

Now the iOS beta is here, complete with its own Feedback Assistant app. I have to admit, I'm a little more nervous about opening the door to iOS beta testing. Now, I'll grant you, most users who are savvy enough to sign up for a beta-testing program are going to be among the more technically inclined. But still, when a mobile OS goes bad, it can go really bad. Traditionally, rolling back to prior versions of iOS has been difficult to impossible, so once you're on the beta train you're probably on it for good. You can install a new version of a computer operating system on a separate partition or even keep a bootable backup of your original OS version on an external drive. None of those options are there for iOS devices--and if your phone freaks out, you can't call for help because your phone is broken.

Apple developers like to tell stories about the entirely foreseeable tragedies that befell them at Apple's annual developer conference. Releasing the first developer preview of newly announced operating systems to a group of people who are traveling far from home... what do you think might happen? Enthusiastic developers install those first releases on their computers and mobile devices, and... sometimes it doesn't go well. Again, if it's your computer, hopefully you brought an external drive. But if you're installing prerelease software on your phone, shouldn't you bring a backup phone? (A lot of Apple developers do, in fact, bring an extra device to San Francisco in June so that they've got a spare should one of their devices become bricked by a badly behaving early release.)

The scary nature of mobile OS betas aside, though, becoming more open is good for Apple. Recently many longtime Apple observers have noticed that Apple's track record of software stability is not so great. You can blame shifts in management and the relentless annual pace of Apple OS releases, but no matter where you place the blame, it's not a good enough excuse. By opening development releases to more users, Apple should be able to spot more bugs before final release, and those bug reports will give engineers who are working on bug fixes more ammunition when it comes time to defend the effort they're putting into bug fixes.

Just in the last couple of months, I've filed multiple bug reports with Apple based on prerelease software. One of them was closed as a duplicate--actually a good sign that someone has already reported that bug--but two more have been kicked back with requests for more information. That suggests Apple is taking bug reports seriously.

It's hard to leap from these few data points to a broader conclusion that Apple is more committed to software stability than before, but opening up its OS development to a broader group of people has got to be a help. And if you're someone who is concerned about future OS releases breaking compatibility with technology you rely on, these programs are another path to get comfortable with new versions before they get pushed out to every single user.

Still, beta software on mobile devices. It gives me the chills. The last the in the world I need is a buggy smartphone, since many times it's my only connection to the rest of the world. I strongly recommend caution before installing an iOS beta on anyone's primary phone.

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