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What is Apple iOS?

The iPhone is five years old, which is comparatively old for a smartphone, although it has gone through several incarnations, with the new iPhone 5 expected to launch with iOS 6 this autum. But what is it about the iPhone that makes legions of fanboys and girls dedicate themselves to its brand and eco system? Sure the design of Apple products goes some way to explaining the appeal, but conventional wisdom dictates that appearance is nothing if the product doesn’t offer a good user experience. One of the real reasons for the success of the iPhone is Apple’s mobile operating system iOS, used on mobile devices including the iPhone, iPad, iPod Touch and Apple TV.

Apple’s existing computer operating system Mac OSX has been around since 1999 and iOS was first seen in the original iPhone unveiled at MacWorld in 2007. It shares many of the same technologies (its kernel is a variation on that used in Mac OS X), but crucially adds multitouch support (so you can pinch to zoom) and an accelerometer.


Initially the first operating system on the iPhone was called OS X, before becoming iPhone OS in 2008 and finally being renamed iOS in 2010 around the time the iPad launched.

What features does iOS have?

Apple could have kept stylistic elements from Mac OS X such as the trash can and bouncing dock – but instead chose to redesign the interface from the ground up, although interestingly some elements of the forthcoming new Mac OS X Lion, appear to borrow stylistically from iOS, especially following the introduction of the Mac App store.

The design of iOS is incredibly user friendly, with icons the perfect size for your fingertip. Instead of drop-down or pop-up menus, you can access features quickly and conveniently by sliding back and forth: swipe right to go to deeper into the menu and left to go back. It sounds simple, but as a user you never feel lost, because all commands are within a few swipes or gestures, instead of being buried in sub-menus.

This is part of the reason why iPad – in particular – has been a success with people of all ages (how many children to you know that can unlock an iPad and launch an application?) you’re not ‘fighting’ with the device to find a feature, which is where other smartphone operating systems – namely Symbian – have suffered by comparison.

iOS is also very quick to respond and very stable – with few crashes.

Major updates to iOS

Apple has continually updated iOS. Updates were initially only available by connecting the device to a computer and using iTunes, however with iOS 5, Apple added OTA updates.

As time as gone on and the hardware has improved older devices don’t have the hardware capability to run all the features, iOS 6 is not supported by the original iPad.

NB: the following is a summary of the major updates and key features of iOS and is not designed to be an exhaustive list.

1.0 – initial version launched on the original iPhone. Instead of being able to download apps, you got pre-loaded apps, such as Google Maps, Safari and iTunes.
Compatible: iPhone (iPod Touch support came with version 1.1)

2.0 – launched on the Apple iPhone 3G. This update adds Mail, Contacts and Calendar updates, support for multiple calendars, video format support and crucially added support for third-party apps from the App store.
Compatible: iPhone 3G, iPod Touch

2.2 – Map enhancements including Google Street View, share location information and walking directions. Improvements to the App store include multiple screenshots and downloadable podcasts over WiFi and 3G
Compatible: iPhone, iPhone 3G and iPod Touch

iOS 3.0 – launched with the Apple iPhone 3GS, adding support for cut, copy and paste, Spotlight search, MMS, Internet tethering and stereo bluetooth. Features like video capture, compass, voice controls and Nike+ support are for iPhone 3GS only.
Compatible: iPhone, iPhone 3G. (iPod Touch support was added with version 3.1)

iOS 3.2 – released on he Apple iPad. This OS introduced features like Safari, You Tube, Maps, the App Store and iBooks to tablet form.
Compatible: iPad only

iOS 4 – launched on the Apple iPhone 4. This update added folders for storing up to 10 apps, multitasking, Facetime calling over WiFi and iBooks support. This is the first time the update was free for the iPod Touch.
Compatible: iPhone 3G, iPhone 3GS and iPod Touch 2nd, iPhone 4, 3rd and 4th gen

iOS 4.1 – added Game Center for online gameing and HDR mode, which combines shots in camera to improve the contrast
Compatible: iPhone 3G, iPhone 3GS, iPhone 4, iPod Touch 2nd and 3rd gen

iOS 4.0.1 – a small but noteworthy update to fix the phone reception bars, following ‘antenna gate’

iOS 4.2.1 – a major update that added Airprint and AirPlay for wireless printing and music streaming.
Compatible: iPhone 3G, iPhone 3GS, iPhone 4, iPod Touch 2nd gen and later

iOS 4.3 – added iTunes Home Sharing, the ability to turn your iPhone 4 into a hotspot for five devices and improved Safari browsing performance via the Nitro JavaScript engine.
Compatible: iPhone 3GS, iPhone 4, iPod Touch 3rd and 4th gen, iPad

iOS 5  – launched on the iPhone 4S. A significant update adding 200 features. Read about them here. Highlights of the update include: Notification Centre, Newsstand, the ability to use the volume button as a camera shutter, PC Free, Tabbed Browsing and Reader.

Compatible: iPhone 3GS, iPhone 4, iPhone 4S, iPod Touch 3rd and 4th gen, iPad and iPad 2

iOS 5.0.2 – Bug fixed to solve battery drain issues, adds multitasking to the original iPad

Compatible: iPhone 3GS, iPhone 4, iPhone 4S, iPod Touch 3rd and 4th gen, iPad and iPad 2

iOS 5.1 – Launching on the new iPad. Added Japanese language support for Siri, the ability to delete photos from Photo Stream, a camera shortcut to lock screen, along with camera app tweaks and Genius support for iTunes Match subscribers.

Compatible: iPhone 3GS, iPhone 4, iPhone 4S, iPod Touch 3rd and 4th gen, iPad, iPad 2, new iPad

iOS 5.1.1 – Minor update, improves reliability of HDR option, bug fixes for AirPlay video playback, iPad 2G/3G swapping.

Compatible: iPhone 3GS, iPhone 4, iPhone 4S, iPod Touch 3rd and 4th gen, iPad, iPad 2, new iPad

iOS 6 – Major update coming autumn 2012. Highlights include: Facebook Integration, Siri local search coming to the UK, message and reminders synching with Mountain Lion revamped Phone application and Passbork. Check out the full iOS 6 features here.

Compatible: iPhone 3GS, iPhone 4, iPhone 4S, iPod Touch 4th gen, iPad 2, new iPad

iOS apps

As hard as it is to believe, the original iPhone didn’t run downloadable third party apps, instead it had pre-installed apps. Third-party apps were introduced in 2008 when the Steve Jobs announced a software development kit would be available for developers to create apps using an iPhone simulator. In turn this led to the launch of the App store.

Apple offers more apps than any other operating system. Unlike the Android Market which is open source so anyone can develop and launch applications for it, developers need to submit apps to Apple first for testing and approval. And as we’ve seen recently Apple can put the price up at any time.

This has led to lots of criticisms of Apple, ranging from reduced choice, to a means of control and censorship, although the advantage of Apple’s closed system is that the Android market is more susceptible to apps containing viruses.


Apple doesn’t like it happening, but many people still do it. Jailbreaking basically enables you to remove Apple’s coding constraints so you can side load unauthorised programs and OS tweaks. This means you can add extra features and third-party apps that don’t come with the Cuppertino seal of approval to personalise your handset. Jailbreak status can be achieved through numerous different processes including applications like RedSn0w and browser hacks like Jailbreak Me.

Jailbreaking your iPhone makes it more vulnerable to hacks, it can be time consuming and voids the warranty (if Apple finds out). In addition although you can still use the handset as normal for calls,browsing etc, the next time Apple release a firmware upgrade you’ll need to lose the jailbreak in order to install the update. Which can be irritating if you’ve spent time customising it.

Many of the features iPhone users jailbreak the phone to use – such as multitasking and folders – Apple later added via firmware upgrades.

Have you ever wondered how many people are using iOS 6 on their iPhones, even though the latest iOS version hasn’t even been released yet? The answer is by downloading the beta used by developers to create and test new and existing apps. To do this you need to be enrolled in Apple’s developer program ($99 per year), which gives access to software development tools and downloads of beta software builds or buy an unused access code from a developer via eBay. If you are a serious iOS aficionado this is a surefire way to get legal (if costly) access to the new features first. Just remember it’s beta for a reason and will likely contain a few bugs.

Not an Apple fan? Check our What is Android and what is an Android phone feature.