How the iOS 7 auto app update feature is a ticking data loss timebomb

How the iOS 7 auto app update feature is a ticking data loss timebomb

Summary: Having apps auto update in the background is great, but if that results in data loss then you're about to enter a world of hurt, and your iCloud or iTunes backup is going to be of little help.


When Apple announced that iOS 7 would support automatic background updating of apps I was thrilled, but that initial excitement has given way to fears that it could lead to data loss.

The idea is simple. No more having to worry about keeping all my iOS apps up-to-date thanks to a new set-it-and-forget-it setting in the OS, and then just let iOS handle it all invisibly in the background. You get all the benefits of running the latest apps without having to lift a finger.

Until things go wrong that it.

While in my experience a good 99.9 percent of iOS app updates go without a hitch, I have had things go wrong. Two apps I use have in the past had problems with new updates wreaking the data stored on my device, forcing me to recover data from a backup. Those two apps are the password manager SplashID and Pocket Informant organizer. These two apps create and store a lot of information on the iPhone and iPad, and major updates involve making changes to that stored data. And any time major changes are made to data, there's a chance that things can go wrong.

Fortunately, both times I had problems I didn't lose any data. That's because I take data backup seriously, and have several copies of my data stored in a variety of locations. In other words, I make regular sacrifices of time and money to the relevant backup gods.

To their credit, the app makers understand that things can, and sometimes do, go wrong, and even go as far as to advise users to backup their data, and offer ways to do it manually. Here is one such warning as issued by SplashID as part of a recent update.

iOS 7 auto app update is a ticking data timebomb

Problem is, if I'd allowed iOS 7 to update my apps automatically I wouldn't have seen that message and might not have known about the problem until I wanted to use the app, by which time it could be too late to do anything about it.

The problem is that Apple doesn't offer iPhone and iPad owners a way to selectively backup and restore their data. iCloud backup is useful, but its use is primarily limited to downloading data to either new devices or ones that have been wiped. Currently there's no way for users to download specific files. If the data used by a single app is hosed then you could wipe your handset and recover all the data from iCloud, but this is a major undertaking.

Another problem with iCloud is that users quickly exceed the free 5GB of storage offered by Apple and need to pay for extra storage. While I don't think that iCloud should be totally free, offering users enough complimentary storage to backup an entire device should be something Apple should consider offering.

Same goes for the iTunes backup, which is also all-or-nothing.

Until Apple offers either users or app developers a better way to protect data, I'll be keeping the auto app update features switched off. My data is worth ore to me than the convenience of auto app update.

You can disable the auto update feature by tapping on Settings and then iTunes & App Store, scrolling down to the Automatic Downloads section and flipping the Updates switch to off

Topics: Mobility, Apple, Disaster Recovery

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  • I wonder .....

    Part of the security setting on my 5S (work phone) turned off or disabled a number of features. This is one of them. I am going to check to see if this was the driver.
  • Android's had Auto-Update Apps for years and most people leave it one.

    You're overestimating the worst case scenario.
    • In Android

      You can make the Auto Update over Wifi only.
      Alan Smithie
      • You can kill cellular auto updates in iOS 7.

        However, don't plan on using that fancy new iTunes Radio feature over cellular since that switch is all or nothing.
        • not true

          Most folks think Automatic App Updates will happen over cellular if "Use Cellular Data" is enabled (as that's what the UI and wording in Settings seems to imply) and then they decide to leave Automatic App Updates off (or block the iTunes Store app from using cellular data entirely, leaving it a "WiFi Only app.")

          Well, I've done some testing with WiFi off, and have corroborated the same findings with friends who have done the same. I am confident now to share the conclusion: Automatic App Updates do *not* happen over cellular data, even with "Use Cellular Data" turned on. Automatic App Updates only occur over WiFi. This is good news, and I'm surprised it hasn't been shared more widely.
    • Agreed

      I've been using auto update for over a year and have never had any problems.
  • It's not the data that's been the issue for me with Android...

    ...But the apps themselves. I have more than one update that's caused issues because the app itself has problems.

    Astrid was a classic example. There was something somewhere that the newer versions didn't like about my phone. I eventually rolled back to a previous x. release and was able to get back up and running then waited until a fix eventually came down the pike.

    This is also why I use Titanium Backup. If an older version isn't available from the vendor (Astrid had versions you could sideload) then TB allows me to fix the issue otherwise.

    It's not the auto-updates that's the issue, but the backups. How many users would have an issue if a bad update if it simply meant going back one revision to a local backup stored on their phone\tablet?
    Lost In Clouds of Data
    • Not the data...

      I have had apps that crashed shortly after updating, and the data went with them, but I have my data backed up on my computers. Nothing more than a major inconvenience getting the data back on the iPhone. I guess this is just ''the nature of the beast".
  • There's being prudent, then there's just ridiculous overkill.

    If you plug your device into iTunes, it makes a backup. Problem solved. If you are using a Mac with Time Machine, then your back up is also backed up to external storage, giving you your data in three places. Short of your phone failing at the same time your house burns down in a fire, you are set.
  • auto-ipad update App is already off

    Turning this off was the first thing I did. Personally, I want to know update details BEFORE it hits my system. Same thing with Windows and OS X. I believe it's part of responsible computing. Unfortunately Apple caved and added this feature. If it destroys any data then lazy gets as lazy does. Heh-heh....

  • Automatic app updates.

    You can turn it off. If you have apps that need to be backed up before an update, then the app should be doing that FOR YOU. And, one of my routines each morning is to go through the new updates and read the update information.
    Frankly, I suspect this is something most people will never need to worry about.
  • And if the app gets hosed during a manual update

    How would anything change if the app got hosed when you manually updated it vs. background update. You still have to have a backup.
    • Exactly

      I see no way to control the app's behaviour no matter how the update is performed...
  • How this article is Wrong.

    First the title should be, "How poorly written apps (in this case apps, that manage their data storage poorly) are a ticking time bombs"

    App developers who were not prepared for ios7, caused their users issues. Instead of reacting to the new update and simply passing the responsibility of backing up the app's own data to the user, they should have addressed the issues before the user even knows about it.

    If the app stores all the crucial data on their own servers, they shouldn't have a problem.
    The problem arises when important data is being stored exclusively on Core data (on the iphone/ipad)'

    We all know it's fun to play the blame game with Apple because it gets more news coverage, but please do some research before you jump to conclusions.

    IOS Developer
    - Neil Young
    • So what you are saying is

      all apps should store their data in the cloud rather than on the device because the OS isnt capable of managing its core function, ie to store and manage data.

      The OS doesnt even offer the opportunity to backup local data before silently rebuilding the system. It is a default option, you have to turn it off yourself. And the app programmers have no control over the filing system being on the interface side of the wall.

      Not the best way to promote backing up of data, or the best way to promote cloud use that has it built-in instead. It does promote bad programming practice though. I've been waiting for a specific backup API to appear on any of the major OSes for years.
      What I'd like to see is a structure that contains keysigning and transport code to write securely to devices as well as cloud storage transparently so a programmer can manage data through a system firewall regardless of format or location. It should also provide signals to apps about what the system is doing with that data passed so the app doesnt have to work around it, guess, or just ignore what the OS is doing.

      I agree with you, distributive code and data need distributive storage and the cloud provides that, but it is the job of the OS to manage data storage, not the app or the user. An API would go a long way to bridge the divide...
  • Alternatives . . .

    Humm, for password management, I've been using KyPass/Dropbox with a KeePass database.

    For my calendar, I use CalendarMob with Google's calendar.

    Both apps allow me to work either online or offline, syncing when they're connected, but supplying offline support when needed. Which IMO is the way things generally should work. In either case, I would have my data back as soon as I reconnected.

    "The problem is that Apple doesn't offer iPhone and iPad owners a way to selectively backup and restore their data. "

    Using Dropbox and apps that synchronize via Dropbox is a great way around this :). It keeps previous versions of files, so you can always roll back individual files as needed.

    "Another problem with iCloud is that users quickly exceed the free 5GB of storage offered by Apple and need to pay for extra storage."

    Yikes, that's a lot. My own iPhone backup is around 750 MB or so. A far cry from 5 GB.
    • Humm, you can set up sync with Pocket Informant . . .

      Humm, looking at Pocket Informant, you can set it up to sync online - any particular reason why you wouldn't use that feature?
  • Sometimes Auto-Update spells disaster

    How many times have you updated an app on your computer or phone only to find out that the update screwed something up? I one time had Windows 7 Update completely hose my system. It screwed up the Driver Signing Enforcement part of Windows so unless I booted Windows 7 with Driver Signing turned off, none of my devices worked.

    When an app receives a major update, you shouldn't update right away. Since there are so many different devices running iOS, you increase the likelihood of something going wrong as you would need to test EVERY possible combination of hardware that it out there. It may sound ridiculous, buy sometimes something as simple as a larger flash storage can cause issues for some user and not others.

    No matter how much testing a company does with an app before releasing it, there is no way to know if the update can cause problems for users as everyone has different apps, games, iOS, on their device.

    Sometimes, one app can interfere with another for no apparent reason.

    Bottom line, if you care about your data, BACK IT UP, then back it up again, then again and store the backups in different places.
  • This is why Apple cannot win

    Apple doesn't have auto-update. It's "Android can do it."
    Apple gets auto-update and its "Data loss disaster!"
    • Indeed.

      Indeed. Automatically updating Android apps could easily have the same result. There's a good bit of bias in this article.