Opinion: Apple’s secret app control weapon is iTunes, not iOS 11

Alex Kidman 21 September 2017 NEWS

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We knew that the death of 32-bit apps was coming, but Apple's changes to iTunes are far more profound for long-term Apple users.

Opinion: Apple released iOS 11 yesterday and, as expected, one of the big new features of the new OS is the removal of support for 32-bit apps.

That's not exactly news. It was flagged back when iOS 11 was first released in beta form and it was clearly part of Apple's plans for years. If you've been ignoring all those pop-up messages that told you an app needed updating, then you can hardly claim that you weren't warned.

However, in the background, Apple was doing something else that was far more wide-reaching in terms of how it controls its walled garden of iOS applications. It updated iTunes.

Normally, iTunes updates come and go with intermittently weird interface design changes that make it tricky to work out where everything is. Or Apple adds something truly strange, like its integrated iTunes social media music network, Ping.

Remember Ping? No? I'm not exactly surprised.

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Yesterday's update of iTunes to version 12.7 was different, however, because in a single stroke, Apple surgically cut the iOS app store from iTunes altogether. It's simply not present in any way anymore in the iTunes desktop software on either macOS or Windows.

Now, you may think that this wasn't a bad idea. Even the most fervent Apple booster would have to admit that iTunes is a rather bloated bit of software, even on its native macOS platform. It's even more variable for Windows users, so reducing the clutter could be seen as a positive thing.

Apple's official support notes for iTunes 12.7 make this quite explicit, stating that:

If you previously used iTunes to sync apps, books or ringtones to your iOS device, use the new App Store, iBooks or Sounds Settings on iOS to re-download them without your computer.

It can't be that hard to manage your apps directly from your iOS device, right?

Not so fast. Removing the iOS app store from iTunes entirely also removes the only way you could restore any apps in your local iTunes library to your iOS device, which is different from downloading them from Apple's servers. Downloading from a remote server means a speed and data hit every time you need to refresh a new device, and if you've got a large app library, that's a considerable annoyance.

Restoring an app from your iTunes library is considerably faster than re-downloading it when you're refreshing to a new device, but it also gives you, the consumer, more power over what you can actually install on your device.

Apple very tightly controls what goes into the App Store. From time to time, an app may have made its way into the store only to cross some Apple guideline or another and get itself removed. For example, there are no VPN apps in the Chinese App Store because China doesn't like them, even though they otherwise meet Apple's app guidelines. Sometimes Apple pulls apps simply because it crosses a line that they don't like. There are countless reasons, and it's Apple's walled garden to play in.

Either way, Apple swiftly excises the apps that it decides are breaking the rules, meaning you can't download them anymore. This was no great issue if you already had a local copy of the app or a backup of your iPhone or iPad stored locally. You could simply restore your local copy of the app through iTunes. Except that now you can't.

And this isn't just an issue of Apple's tight control over apps. Numerous apps throughout the App Store's history have been pulled by developers over time, because they've either lost interest, lost licenses to content or simply shut up shop.

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One obvious example of this would be the hyper-successful (at the time) Flappy Bird. Yes, it was a 32-bit app, so it was doomed because of iOS 11 anyway, but it's a good illustrative example regardless. Flappy Bird was pulled by its developers despite its massive popularity, but enthusiasts kept Flappy Bird alive on their devices by directly loading it through iTunes onto their new iOS devices.

For any future devices, this won't be an option. If you've got any apps that you want to keep, hold onto your iPhone tight and hope that the battery lasts.

Still, the functional reality moving forward is that by shifting the entire iOS ecosystem onto the cloud in one fell swoop, Apple's removed a level of consumer choice and flexibility in favour of its own control.

You might weep for your poor lost 32-bit apps, but at least we knew that change was coming and could prepare for it. From now on, any iOS apps you buy will exist on your devices for precisely as long as Apple deems it right and proper, and no longer.

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