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

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.
Written by Adrian Kingsley-Hughes, Senior Contributing Editor

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

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