Using pre-release software like Apple's public beta of iOS 12 is exciting. It puts you ahead of the curve, giving you access today to what everyone else will be downloading next week or next month. But it can be frustrating, too. After all, if the software was finished, it would have already been released. Using beta software means dealing with bugs, slowdowns and incompatibilities — all in the name of getting to live slightly in the future.
After years of using beta software, one of the lessons I've learned is that it's a mistake to jump to any conclusions about the speed or stability of the final release based on the betas. I liken using beta software to going to see a preview of a Broadway musical, in that things will be tweaked before the wider public sees the show. But it's probably more accurate to say that it's like working in a building that's still under construction: There are great new views and lots of space, but sometimes the elevator may stop working and the water in the kitchen might be a little brown.
It's worth keeping all of this in mind when we see reports of weird things going on with beta versions of upcoming software releases, or even when Apple makes a dramatic move like delaying a marquee feature such as group video chats in FaceTime. (Group video chats won't be part of the initial iOS 12 release, but Apple says it will add the feature later this year.) I'm also struck by the recent reports that Apple pulled a version of its iOS 12 beta due to performance issues, but this has hit me directly, too: For the past few days, my beta-running iPad was unable to launch any apps via the search bar, which forced me to hunt through folders to find my apps.
Bumps in the beta road?
The initial word on this year's crop of iOS betas was positive. Many people reported that the early iOS 12 betas were the most stable ones they'd encountered at that stage of development, and my own testing backs that up. So if more recent releases are a little janky, does that mean Apple's moving in the wrong direction? Is it a sign of trouble?
My considered opinion: Probably not. As the development process rolls along, sometimes there are hiccups. It's all a part of the beta process.
I'm more encouraged by the fact that Apple claims it's focusing on stability and speed on older devices in this update, and that the iOS 12 betas started out fairly stable. That's a sign that there's a solid foundation here and that Apple will be able to release a solid update when it's time to throw open the stage doors for the first official performance.
That said, it's impossible to know for sure. I've used beta operating systems for months with no hint of problems, and I've written about that experience in numerous stories — only to find that there's an obscure bug that's devastating for a small number of users. Until Apple deploys iOS 12 to all the iPhones and iPads out there, we won't know for sure.
This, by the way, is why Apple now does an open public beta program for iOS and macOS. In the old days, software developers were just about the only people testing the new software, and big bugs that had never been noticed were exposed upon the software's wider release.
These days, Apple is reaching a much larger audience, and the company is armed with the Feedback Assistant app, which provides an easy front end for bug reporting. If you're running a beta version of iOS or macOS and have run into bugs, you've reported them with the Feedback Assistant, right? Do your part, or you don't get to complain when Apple doesn't fix your bug.
Three beta challenges
Many things may vary wildly across a beta-test cycle, but three vary the most: speed, battery life and interface details. Talk to anyone who writes about software, especially if they're working on a long-term project like a feature article or a book, and they'll warn you never to snap any images of the software until the last moment. Details get changed all the time, in ways you may not even notice.
Speed can vary wildly from build to build, depending on which aspect of the system you're taxing. This summer, I've been asked about Apple's claims that iOS 12 runs much better on older iPhones. I will admit that things seem promising, but until the final version is released, we won't know for sure.
Then, there's battery life — perhaps the most pernicious and frustrating part of beta-testing any mobile operating system. If you want to subject your iPhone to beta software, you will most likely be frustrated by mysterious battery drains before you can ever be bit by software incompatibility or other glitches.
Part of this is because Apple is working on the power-management settings, and part is because your beta-testing device is far more likely to suffer from a misbehaving app or other chunk of software that just won't die, thus draining your battery.
There's a sign that Apple is well aware that you never get a second chance to make a first impression: the decision to delay group chats in FaceTime. To me, that indicates that the company is scrutinizing every feature in the system and that it's not afraid to yank features that just aren't ready for public consumption. It's counterintuitive, but Apple's move to pull buggy features from iOS 12 before it's released is a sign that the final version will be more stable.
That is, unless something unknown is lurking there. You can never be sure with software.
Credit: Tom's Guide