Fear-Mongering About a “Risky” iOS Change

March 29th, 2017

Apple released the final version of the iOS 10.3 update on Monday. But for many who had already installed the beta seeds, it was a slightly more full-featured maintenance update to what appears to have been a relatively trouble-free OS release.

But the most significant new feature may be something Apple hasn’t really made a fuss about. It’s about the file system and something called APFS. Short for Apple File System, it’s the first major update since HFS+ arrived in 1998 with the release of Mac OS 8.1. Over the years, Apple has enriched HFS+ by adding additional features, such as journaling, the tracking or logging file changes not yet “committed” to the file system, to better support Mac OS X.

At the WWDC last year, Apple debuted APFS in beta form. It was made available to developers for Sierra, but it isn’t ready for prime time for lots of reasons, including nonsupport for Fusion Drives and file encryption. However, Apple has continued to work on it, and it is now ready for iPhones and iPads.

So APFS is designed to work best with the new generation of Flash and SSDs, and includes such powerful features as file encryption, space sharing, cloning for files and directories, snapshots and other 21st century features. It’s supposed to be a really good thing.

Now some of those who have upgraded to iOS 10.3 remark about multiple restarts and the fact that it takes a lot longer to install. I suppose the situation is worse if you’ve got lots of stuff on your iPads and iPhones, although the articles I’ve read on the subject don’t get that granular. However. I didn’t notice that much of a difference when I first ran the update on two iPhones and an iPad, but perhaps that’s because they aren’t stuffed with apps and multimedia files.

But upgrading the file system is a huge deal, and I suppose there’s always room for mischief, although it doesn’t seem as if the online world is filled with reports of trouble. The iOS 10.3 public betas have been out for several weeks, so there was plenty of opportunity for things to fail. On the other hand, iOS is more of a closed system than a Mac, hence fewer chances for trouble.

The results seem favorable so far. In addition to speedier startup times, it appears that some storage space has been reclaimed, and this is particularly helpful on all those devices with 16GB storage. In most cases, you can save up to several gigabytes (nearly 8GB in an AppleInsider test). But extra space doesn’t seem to happen on all devices. My wife’s iPhone 5c, with 16GB, lost a few hundred MB in available storage, but the upgrade process seemed no slower than when I installed iOS 10. It seemed a tad snappier with iOS 10.3 on it, however. That appears to be due to Apple developers making animations run more efficiently, and that’s a huge deal on slower hardware.

And if something goes wrong, you can restore your device from a backup. You do have a backup, right? Even if you install a “regular” OS update, you should make sure you backup before starting the installation.

So what’s wrong with this?

Well, upgrading the file system is still a huge deal. Even if nothing goes wrong, I suppose there’s a risk, which is why I always make a big deal about being sure you backup first. Alas, Apple has kept this change mostly under-the-radar unless you’ve read the developer information of consulted the tech sites that normally discuss such things. It’s not in the standard iOS 10.3 release notes.

As a result, there’s plenty of opportunity for fear-mongering. Such threatening words as “risky” and “nasty” are being used by bloggers to describe the silent APFS upgrade process, and cautioning readers about the occasionally slow silent upgrade process. Rather than reassure the readers that all is well — you just have to be patient — they are making it seem as if Apple is making a huge mistake in inflicting a more robust file system upgrade on us.

Again, APFS means better performance, better reliability, better security. It may not be perfect, but what it does should represent a big improvement over the patchwork of stuff added to HFS+ over the years. There were even rumors that Apple would adopt a modified third-party file system some years back, and suggestions as to what it might be. Instead, Apple chose to do their own.

My experiences with my iOS devices is that, other than the subtle changes, few will know or care about APFS. It recalls the HFS+ upgrade process, which was more time-consuming and dangerous, but generally completed without incident. Apple clearly sweat the details here, which is why, aside from the occasionally slow update process, you shouldn’t have anything to be concerned about. This is yet another example of what Apple does best, which is to make sophisticated technology easy to use and relatively transparent to the user.

How many iPad and iPhone owners know or care that they have tiny supercomputers on which is now installed an advanced file system to ensure maximum performance, data integrity and security?

Maybe Apple should have been more descriptive about the upgrade process and the reasons for the change. But the end result seems quite positive to me so far. As I said, if something goes wrong, you only have to restore your iOS device and start over. Installing anew on a clean Flash drive ought to be a pretty seamless process.

Meantime, the fear mongering will continue, but the only thing that’s risky and nasty is taking any of that nonsense seriously.

I now await the official release of APFS for Macs, which may come with the next major macOS release.

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2 Responses to “Fear-Mongering About a “Risky” iOS Change”

  1. dfs says:

    I can tell you the exact point at which I would begin to worry. HFS was revolutionary because its scheme of nested files introduced a new metaphor to replace the original flat file one, and this new metaphor provided the basis for the system of URL addresses we all use (look at the URL of this very page, each slash represents a new level of nesting, so that, for inst, “/2017/03” represents a folder nested within “2017” and so forth). Since billions of web pages already exist that are labelled in this way, it is obviously waaay too late to substitute yet another metaphor for our present one. As far as I am concerned, Apple is free to do whatever it wants in the way of introducing new filing systems as long as it respects
    the original HFS metaphor (as does HFS+), I couldn’t care less and probably would never notice the difference. If it disrupted this system, then it would make an instant enemy out of me and every other website manager in the world. But I can’t imagine Apple would be crazy enough to try this.

    • gene says:

      Well, if there’s a difference, it boots up a little faster. I tried it in two iPhones.

      For 99.9% of iPhone users, they’ll never notice beyond that.


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