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What to know before upgrading to iOS 7

iOS 7 will be released later today and excitement is high. It’s been high since the day Apple announced it and released a preview edition to developers.

And speaking of “high,” too many readers during that first week were asking me for advice on how to obtain and install it. I had to take on the role of Saintly Advisor. I told them that the developer betas were just fine so long as they didn’t mind having to recharge every three hours and the possibility of not being able to receive or place phone calls every now and then didn’t sound like a major issue.

(Moral: when Apple or Microsoft or Google offers you access to a developer-grade version of a forthcoming OS, it’s like when one of those sketchy kids in your high school held out a glass of what appeared to be Coke and offered you a taste. It could be Coke. It could be rum and Coke. It could be Coke and … something organic but not intended for deliberate human consumption. Unless you’re developing software or looking for an answer to the question “Why did you beat a kid so badly that you were suspended for a week?” don’t install developer previews of an operating system.)

Today, however, Apple releases a version of iOS 7 that’s been approved for human consumption. It’s safe. But there are still a few reasons why you should exercise caution. Here’s a list of things to do before updating:

1) Dock your iOS device via USB and use iTunes to perform a complete backup.

It’s good advice every time you upgrade any OS on anything. The data on our phones and tablets are backed up to the cloud practically as quickly as we create it but that won’t help restore your whole device to health and sanity if something terrible happens during the update process or even if it works fine but you have second thoughts.

Do a separate backup of your complete photo library. Those photos and videos are so valuable that you absolutely need to have them as a set of photos in your desktop photo library and as a folder of JPEGs copied safely to both a removable storage device and cloud storage.

2) Do some housecleaning.

Apple releases a major OS update every year. It’s a good reminder to take a step back and think about what you’ve got on your device. It’s like when adjusting your clocks for daylight saving time is a reminder to change the batteries in your smoke detectors.

Plus, reports are in that the update process requires at least three gigabytes of free space on the device so that the installer has enough maneuvering room. Now more than ever, it’s time to kill clutter.

Now that you have an iPhoto or Aperture or Lightroom album of all of your photos, build a new album containing just the “wallet pictures” and photos that you want to keep on the device. Photo of your little kid in his 11th Doctor Who Halloween costume = keep. The hundred photos of garage signs reminding you of places where you’ve parked your car since you bought your first iPhone = Leave behind.

Once the album is complete and you’ve double-checked that you have three copies of your complete iPhone photo roll (photo library, removable physical media, cloud), delete all of the pictures from your phone.

I also like to do similar backups of any texts or voice mails that I’ve been keeping for sentimental reasons, as well as exporting all of my contacts and calendars out of my desktop managers and into files. Making a copy that won’t be touched or affected by syncing is an extra layer of protection against a human-made or machine-made syncing error.

Weed out all of the apps you aren’t using. If I had $2.99 for every iPad text editor I’ve bought, used once, and then forgot about, I’d have all of the money back I’ve ever wasted on text editors.

Many of the apps you wish to keep use local storage. That’s another place where no-longer-needed data hides out. I use a 64 gigabyte iPad and am often asking myself “Jeez, where did my storage go?” The answer is often “The 28 issues of ‘100 Bullets’ in your comic book reader app, the 1.2 gigabyte movie file you starred in the Dropbox app so that you could watch it offline … ”

Do a room-to-room search with weapons ready.

3) Check with the makers of all of your mission-critical apps and learn about their state of iOS 7 readiness.

It’s unlikely that there’s bad news waiting for you. If the developer hasn’t been able to update the app for the new OS, it ought to run just fine as a legacy.

If there’s an issue, however, they should have at least identified it by now. It’s possible that they’ve identified what they consider to be a minor problem and decided to release the update now and fix the problem later. If the minor problem prevents the app from connecting to your company’s secure servers, that’s considerably more than minor.

Craig Federighi, Apple Senior VP of Software Engineering, shows off iOS 7 during last week’s launch event.

These are just sensible steps to take before any major OS update. But iOS 7 isn’t just another update: it’s as major as the first release of the iPhone and as such, there are a couple of new things to keep in mind.

First: you’re going to be a little lost at first.

Many functions and features of iOS are so familiar to you my now that when you use them, all of the associated electrical activity in your brain is happening inside the brainstem. It’s down to muscle memory.

Well, Apple has moved a lot of things around. Even the things they’ve kept in place look different.

Be patient.

It’s fine.

iOS 7 isn’t a project that Apple farmed out to a subcontractor. It is the end-result of Apple sitting back and thinking about what has to happen with iOS to ensure that it can continue to succeed. It’s different, not “ruined.”

However, you should be aware that you’re going to be fumbling with iOS 7 for the first few days. If you’ve got a do-or-die meeting or event coming up, you might want to wait until that’s over with before you upgrade. The software is stable but the user isn’t.

Second, if the developer of your most important app has used some clever tricks to enable certain features, then those features might go away. Maybe for good.

All of the developers I’ve spoken to are pleased with the new resources that Apple has provided in iOS 7. More than that: they’re energized. Lots of ideas that would have been way too much trouble to pull off are now directly supported by APIs.

But developers don’t get enough credit for “thinking outside the APIs.” When they come to regard a certain feature or behavior as being critical to their apps, and it’s not supported formally by Apple, they code up a solution themselves. Sometimes, they have to come up with some clever tricks to get around limitations set by iOS or enforced by Apple.

Every major update to an OS can “break” these tricks. That’s the whole point of developer APIs: on some level, it’s a social contract between the OS maker and the developer. When a developer works outside that contract, the deal’s off.

Which is another reason why you should have a talk with the maker of each of your critical apps. One of my most important iPad apps is Edovia’s Screens remote access app. It has stellar support for Bluetooth keyboards, despite the lack of enthusiasm for those things shown in iOS 6’s APIs. Why? Because Edovia developed a bunch of tricks.

Apple’s beefed up keyboard support in iOS 7. But a remote-access app has an unusual relationship with its keyboard. The new APIs aren’t much help and the trick that Screens used to activate the arrow keys doesn’t work any more.

If not for the fact that I’ve had the iOS 7 beta of Screens for a while and have been in contact with the developers, I wouldn’t have known that. It’s better to learn these things via an email before you’ve installed iOS 7 and boarded a plane than after, inside a conference room, where you desperately need to operate a Windows app on a PC back in your office 3000 miles away.

Third, it’s possible that you’re not going to understand some of the new settings and configurations. iOS 7 is working fine, but an alarm pinged off during a theatrical performance even though you were sure that you’d silenced it, or your iPhone 5’s battery died on you hours before you thought it would even though you thought your screen brightness and other power-related settings were exactly as they were in iOS 6.

Finally! While iOS 7 is a free upgrade, it might wind up costing you some money. Not all third-party developers will offer free updates to their apps. The version they released for iOS 6 will run just fine, but you might need need to buy a whole new copy to get all of the new iOS 7 features.

Annoying? Yes. Expensive? Oh, boy, yes; some of my apps cost $20 or $30. Thievery? Naw. Updating a productivity app for iOS 7 isn’t as simple as wiping the shiny highlights off of the icon and then resubmitting it to the app store. In some cases, it’s like tearing down a house built in 1972 and rebuilding it so that it looks 90% as it did before, only with 21st-century electrical, plumbing, and heating service. Think of this as the price for all of the benefits this new app will receive by using iOS 7’s APIs.

If this news has got you muttering “well, this is how they get you!” then just don’t upgrade your apps. That’ll learn ’em!

(Plus, if their iOS 6 app breaks in iOS 7 and they refuse to fix it, they’re probably doomed, anyway.)

All in all, the key phrase here is “you are replacing a tool that you’re intimately familiar with with one you’ve never seen before.” It’s not a judgment on the quality of iOS 7 or your own innate smarts. It’s simple physics.

You’re going to want to upgrade to iOS 7. If your hardware supports it (any iPhone with a Retina display; any iPad except for the first-generation one; the latest-gen iPod Touch), you should go for it.

But! If you’ve got an important project or a sensitive event coming up in the next couple of weeks, you should wait.

You might indeed have an ironclad excuse for why your phone started playing “L.A. Woman” during your vows. You might even desperately show your father-in-law this very column. But he’ll still be thinking “My child has just married someone who doesn’t even know how to operate the easiest phone in the world.”

This is not a worthy trade-off for getting to use iOS 7’s pull-up integrated flashlight button for an extra week.