PSA: This is why non-developers shouldn't run iOS betas

Answer these two questions really quickly:

  1. Are you a developer?
  2. Are you running the iOS 5 beta?
If you answered no to the first question and yes to the second, then this post is meant for you. You are doing it wrong, and on behalf of everyone everywhere, please stop.

Why do I say that? Look no farther than the e-mail we received this morning (edited for clarity/brevity and to disguise the sender's identity):

Subject: Major iOS 5 beta 2 glitch

I recently bought an iPad 2 right before a trip to Africa for a family vacation. Being right after the release of the iOS 5 beta 2, and being part of the development program, I put it on my brand new iPad. It worked very well for the first 2 weeks of my trip. Then at exactly the halfway point in my trip, the screen went black, and I was booted to the initial iOS 5 "Slide To Set Up" screen.

The iPad semed to have automatically reset itself and I have no idea how. I've searched the internet for other people with a similar problem, but haven't came up with anything, as this seems to be an isolated incident. Even worse, I don't have my laptop here to set it up again, as the server is still down for wireless set up. Its just sitting in my backpack now, useless for the next week until I'm home.

Really a pain, because I'm still in Africa with nothing but my iPod nano and an internet cafe to entertain me for the rest of the trip.
Developers will read this email and, depending on their disposition, either start chuckling or slamming their heads against their desks. Though this person claims to be part of Apple's Developer Program, he or she clearly has no idea how Apple handles developer betas. Those betas expire after a certain amount of time elapses. In fact, iOS 5 beta 2 expired a couple weeks ago, and confusion over that expiration among the many non-developers running it probably contributed to exaggerated reports of widespread shutdowns of some iOS developers' accounts.

I'd hope that any real developers would either know immediately why their iOS hardware locked them out as described above, or they'd at least know where to find the answer within two minutes. More than that, I'd think they'd know better than to load up their main iOS devices with beta software if they were heading on an extended trip to a region lacking reliable internet service -- like, you know, Africa.

That's not the only reason non-developers shouldn't be toying with iOS betas. Unlike Google, who applied the "beta" label to things like Gmail years beyond when the term was still realistic, Apple's beta software is really, really beta. The first two iOS 5 betas were so crashtastic that many paying developers felt compelled to downgrade to iOS 4, and compatibility with many third-party apps gets broken with just about every beta iteration.

My colleagues here at TUAW want me to emphasize this point: Apple's definition of "beta" when it comes to iOS is not the same as Google's, or Mozilla's, or many other third-party development entities. What Apple calls "beta" is what most other developers would call "alpha" -- software never intended for use by the general public, released only to small numbers of (hopefully) knowledgable people for testing purposes.

If you want to look for an Apple example of "beta" software as almost everyone else defines it, look at the public release of OS X Lion, or just about any version of OS X before it. The 10.x.0 release of OS X is almost always riddled with bugs, inconsistencies, etc., and Apple usually pushes out a 10.x.1 update within a few weeks to address those. More cautious/paranoid Mac users often avoid upgrading to the next version of OS X until the .1 release for that very reason.

The iOS x.0 public release software is usually pretty stable, but that's only because it's been preceded by months of testing on millions of units. The iOS betas themselves, especially the first few releases, are often about as stable as a drunken unicyclist. Sometimes this goes beyond app crashes and general instability -- sometimes, iOS betas can be so bug-riddled that the basic, core functionality of the device simply doesn't work worth a **** until the next release comes out.

Developers know and understand these perils of beta software. Non-developers usually don't, so support forums get flooded with messages from irritated-to-irate users wondering why their formerly rock-solid device is suddenly crashing every time they try to load more than three tabs in Safari, or why the Music app crashes and burns every five minutes.

Far worse than that is when these same people flood the App Store with negative ratings for apps that are "broken" in iOS 5, as developer Malcolm Barclay noted a couple months ago. "Your app crashes on launch in iOS 5. ONE STAR until it's fixed." These negative reviews have an insidious effect on developers' bottom line. Many users base their app buying decisions on an app's reviews, and if a dozen or more non-developers flood a small app with one-star ratings over iOS 5 incompatibility issues, it might mean that people who otherwise would have downloaded the app will avoid it instead. As Barclay said, App Store reviews aren't the place to file bug reports, and developers can't be expected to know beforehand whether beta software -- which no one leaving App Store reviews should be running in the first place -- will break their apps.

At the risk of sounding hypocritical, I'll be honest: I'm not an iOS developer, but I'm running iOS betas on both of my devices. Even though I'm not actively involved in writing apps, however, I still have an excuse to be running these betas -- it's my job to know what Apple's up to, even if the NDA prevents me from telling the rest of you about it until the official launch. That said, I also go out of my way to educate myself about the potential pitfalls of running beta software on my equipment, which is something I doubt many non-developers are bothering to do beforehand based on the number of emails like the one above we've been getting over the past couple months.

I know you non-devs are curious about trying out the new features in iOS 5. I sympathize. I also know at least some of you are motivated by the "first kid on my block to have it" mentality. But you know the old saying about curiosity killing the cat? Running iOS beta releases on your hardware won't kill your cat, but it'll make it seem like the thing is running all over your house with a string of cans tied to its tail -- for three months.

If your livelihood doesn't depend on running the iOS 5 beta, then for your own sake and ours, just let it be. If you don't know how to restore your iPhone or iPad's firmware without looking it up on Google first, just don't do it at all. If you're not prepared for a subpar experience involving bugs, crashes, app incompatibilities, weird UI behaviors, unfinished or even half-baked features, and even terrible battery life, then give iOS 5 a miss until the public launch, when Apple will (hopefully) have all the bugs squashed. If you don't understand the concept that iOS betas have an expiration date, and you must keep pace with the current betas if you want your hardware to continue functioning, then don't run iOS 5.

In short, if you're not prepared for your Apple hardware to behave in a very un-Apple way for months at a stretch, then in the name of all that is holy, leave the betas alone.

PSA: This is why non-developers shouldn't run iOS betas originally appeared on TUAW - The Unofficial Apple Weblog on Tue, 16 Aug 2011 09:00:00 EST. Please see our terms for use of feeds.

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