By now, most people know there are two major mobile operating systems: Google’s Android and Apple’s iOS. There used to be a lot more, but now pretty much every major mobile device runs one or the other. In case you are wondering: “What is iOS?” That’s a huge question, and we’ll answer it as thoroughly as possible here!
Even if you’re an iPhone pro, there could be a lot to learn in the sections below. But if you’re new to the world of iPhone — or just the world of iOS — this is the perfect place to get up-to-speed on the world’s most popular operating system.
What is an operating system?
If you ask, “What is iOS?” you’re likely to hear back, “It’s an operating system.” That answer is only helpful if you know what an operating system is!
In brief, an operating system is computer software that works to integrate hardware and software resources. It allows for different types of hardware to work together while simultaneously providing a platform for various bits of software to work with that hardware and, consequently, other pieces of software.
If that’s still confusing, think of the analogy of a stage play. To put on a play, you’ll need a stage, lights, microphones, and other pieces of hardware. You’ll also need actors, stage crew, ushers, and other workers, which would be analogous to software. In this analogy, the play’s director would be similar to an operating system, as he would act as a conduit that instructs everything on how to work together. Without the director, you’d just have a ton of unused hardware with a bunch of people running around with no idea what to do.
In the case of iPhones, iOS acts as the “director” for the unique hardware in your phone and the apps you’ve chosen to install.
What is iOS? Here are the basics
The iOS operating system is the software that runs your iPhone or iPad. It operates in the background as you accomplish things on your iOS device. It is largely invisible to the user, keeping everything running smoothly and containing features you might not think of as part of an operating system. A lot of the more visible aspects of iOS are presented as apps. A good example of this is the Settings app that lets you configure your device. The app store and Music app are two more examples of this kind of thing. As a user, they seem like discrete parts. However, behind the scenes, app developers can tie elements together to create apps that tap into these various capabilities in concert as needed.
Recently, a new fork of the iOS operating system was created. Called iPadOS, it will be used to specifically run iPads from this point onward. The size advantages of iPads make different things possible on their larger screens. Enough differences in layout and use have emerged to make the developers at Apple believe that over time, things will differ more sharply between how one uses an iPhone or iPod versus an iPad. This split has just occurred recently. The largest difference I noticed was that apps could now be substantially smaller on each platform.
iOS does a whole lot of things completely behind the scenes to give a smooth and intuitive user experience. Examples include managing power consumption, encrypting and decrypting information on the fly, monitoring your device’s temperature, checking for new information, and interpreting finger movements on the touchscreen known as gestures. These include such things as taps involving one or more fingers, swipes, and flicks, etc. These may seem strange at first, but will eventually become very intuitive as you do more with your device. iOS controls all the other hardware in your device such as memory, audio input and output, reading sensors, and other functions. It also makes certain that files are kept organized and are kept with the apps that use them. You need never worry about where a given file is if you don’t want to. This greatly simplifies things, especially for more casual, less tech-savvy users. However, when you want to take more personal charge of aspects like this, iOS provides the tools you require.
iOS versions: A brief history
iPhone OS 1
In 2007, Steve Jobs introduced the iPhone and iPhone OS 1 along with it. During the press conference, Jobs referred to the operating system as OS X because it shared a similar Unix core compared to the full-fledged desktop version of the operating system. When Apple launched the iPhone SDK one year later, the name changed to iPhone OS.
iPhone OS 2
On July 11, 2008, Apple dramatically expanded the capabilities of its mobile operating system with iPhone OS 2. The new version added third-party apps (in what is now known as the App Store) and location services through the newly added GPS unit on the iPhone 3G. Apple also introduced its MobileMe cloud software, but the idea never quite took off.
iPhone OS 3
Apple was still riding high after launching the App Store, but Jobs still had some big advancements for iPhone fans in 2009, including copy/paste tools, MMS support, Spotlight, tethering, and push notifications for 3rd party applications.
First off, the name. Apple officially dropped the “Phone” part of its mobile OS, which makes sense considering the software now ran on iPods, iPhones, and the new shiny iPad. But the two big blockbuster features were FaceTime and Multitasking.
iOS was growing up and added three features that make it hard to imagine how we ever lived without them: Notification Center, iMessage, and Siri. Aside from these big updates, Apple introduced (love it or hate it) iCloud and a more functional lock screen.
Apple launched its own mapping service, Apple Maps, along with Passbook, for storing plane tickets, coupons, and other digital ephemera. Siri also got some much needed updates, and Apple no longer bundled the YouTube app on the iPhone
The operating system was completely overhauled with a more simple design, flatter icons, and Helvetica font. Apps were given edge-to-edge designs and the operating system included a new parallax-scrolling home screen. Apple also introduced the frosted glass Control Center, for quick access to options like flashlight, Bluetooth, and another new feature, AirDrop. iOS 7 also added the new Photos app, iTunes Radio, and card-based multitasking. iPhone also introduced Touch ID, though that was more of a hardware feature of the iPhone 5s.
With an all-new look, Apple returned its focus to iOS usability, specifically giving developers more control throughout iOS. Apple allowed third-party keyboards, widgets, and the ability to share files from different apps and services. Apple launched Testflight, a way for developers to run betas on iOS, as well as a Health app and number of “kits,” such as Research Kit, Health Kit, and Home Kit. Apple also began tinkering with the idea of tearing down the platform wall between iOS and OS X with Continuity.
[Notably, Apple also launched Apple Pay on iOS 8.1 with the release of the iPhone 6 (outfitted with an NFC chip) and Apple Music with iOS 8.4.]
iOS 9 focused obsessively on three things, making Siri smarter, Apple Music, and 3D Touch (above). Siri’s brain got an upgrade with what Apple called Proactive, which brought back the full panel Spotlight feature now with intelligence comparable to Google Now. Apps like Notes, Transit, and News got a major overhaul, iPads received multi-window support, and software download sizes were mercifully much smaller than previous releases.
iOS 10 dubbed “the mother of all updates” my Tim Cook. The new software improved the lockscreen and refreshed the look of the News and Music apps. But the biggest feature was opening the software development kit to developers for the first time with Siri, Maps, and iMessages.
Along with iOS 11 came a rework of the App Store: a new design and regular editorial content should help users find apps more easily.
iOS 11 came with lots of improvements like a customizable Control Center, the Quick Type keyboard, and new features for the Photos app.
But much of it was clearly targeted at the iPad: the new Files app and Dock, a new concept for better multitasking and drag & drop interactions dramatically improved working on the iPad.
Performance was one of the core topics in iOS 12. Especially the tasks that users perform regularly (like opening the camera or revealing the keyboard) were optimized, even on older devices.
Apple also removed a long-standing limitation of FaceTime: now, up to 32 people could join a FaceTime call simultaneously.
And finally, in the age of screen addiction, the new Screen Time feature helps users to monitor their device usage – and maybe, eventually put their phones down…
After Dark Mode had recently come to macOS, it is now also available in iOS 13. Users can decide to switch to the new, darker experience completely – or have it automatically turned on at sunset or at a specific time.
Additionally, Photos now intelligently curates your photo library and highlights your “best” images, using on-device machine learning.
Possibly the most interesting news, however, could be the introduction of “Sign In with Apple”: like Facebook and Google, Apple now offers its own sign-in service that allows users to register for and log into services and apps via their existing Apple ID.
On iOS 14, apps now have to share the space on the home screen with widgets. This means that widgets now play a more prominent role, which is why they gained more intelligence and configuration options in iOS 14.
Also, the Messages app has received some exciting new features: you can pin conversations, use inline replies, and mention other people in your messages.
Among the host of other new features is also an all-new Translations app which is also directly integrated with Safari (allowing you to translate websites while you surf).
Especially during a worldwide pandemic, staying in touch and connecting with others has been more important than ever. iOS 15 comes with a range of new features that help users do exactly that.
With SharePlay, you can now watch a movie together, listen to music together or simply share your screen inside FaceTime. Messages now lets you share content more easily while new Memojis help to express yourself.
All this should not come at the expense of your privacy. That’s why Apple also introduced a range of privacy features with iOS 15 – from App Privacy Report to Mail Privacy Protection. Apple gives its users more control over what they choose to share.
Apps: How you can get them
Like other operating systems, iOS comes with many programs and functions built in. Other developers create pieces of software that build on parts of the iOS operating system to create more capabilities. Apps or “applications are these programs that allow you to perform tasks on your device. They do everything from play your music to letting you send and receive email. I’m using an app called Ulysses to write this blog post. It is a word-processing app made especially for authors of long documents like this one. At the same time I’m writing this section, another app called Nature space fills my ears with the sound of wind blowing through an aspen forest, waves on a beech, or any of dozens of other natural soundscapes. I often add modern instrumental music to this with the Music app from Apple. I’m especially fond of piano pieces while writing. Beyond the apps that come with iOS, people have made hundreds of thousands of additional apps. You can obtain these from the app store. You would do yourself a grave disservice if you failed to avail yourself of at least some apps beyond what comes on your device.
Apple has produced some free apps that either come pre-installed with iOS or may be freely obtained from the app store if people want them. The apps that come pre-installed offer a good range of basic starting capabilities for your device. If you have an iPhone, it will have a Phone app that gives you all the functions you’d expect from an actual phone. Other apps include a calendar, calculator, reminders list, a note-taking app, the music app, a web browser called Safari, and many more. If a kind of technology is present in your device, you’ll find an app letting you make use of it. The Maps app, for instance, gives you a robust set of navigation abilities making use of the GPS receiver and other location-finding capabilities in your device.
Feel free to explore and try out these apps you find on your device without worrying that you’ll cause any harm. You can’t do any damage to your device by this kind of exploration. When you want more capabilities than are currently found on your iOS device, you will want to make use of the App Store app. That’s where to go to find apps to do an astonishing array of things. Just open the app and search for whatever game or program you’re looking for. Many of them are free, but some will require payment.
iOS is closed source, but what does that mean?
Apple’s iOS is closed source, which means that no one can use it unless the copyright holder — in this case, Apple — gives permission. If you were to obtain the source code of iOS and release it on any device, Apple could sue you for infringement on its ownership.
To better understand this, let’s look at the opposite: open-source software. When something is open source, it means the copyright owner allows its use for any purpose, without any need for financial remuneration. The core code of Android is based on open-source software called Linux. This means that Android, by definition, must also be open source.
If you desperately want custom ROMs for your phone and want to play around with that sort of thing, Android is for you. If you don’t, iOS is fine. And here’s a sad truth: One of the main reasons to install a custom ROM is to get a more modern version of Android on a phone that is no longer supported by its manufacturer. This is not a problem with iOS.
When Do New iOS Versions Come Out?
Generally, Apple announces the latest version of iOS at WWDC in June of each year. Because this is geared towards developers, only beta versions are available for testing at that time.
Later in the year, Apple usually releases the newest iOS version shortly after its yearly iPhone announcement event, which is typically held during the second week of September. Once the iOS update rolls out, anyone with a compatible device can download it for free.
As a result, you can expect iOS 16 to release sometime in September 2022.
Throughout the year, Apple also releases minor revisions to iOS. These are called “point releases” because they add a decimal point to the version number (such as iOS 15.3). These usually fix bugs, patch security flaws, and may add small feature revisions.
How to Update iOS on Your iPhone
Your iPhone will prompt you to download the latest iOS updates when they become available. You can also check for updates manually anytime by visiting Settings > General > Software Update. If you already have the latest update, this page will let you know what iOS version you have installed.
See our guide to updating your iPhone for more help. To keep your iPhone secure, it’s a good idea to install the latest updates in a timely manner. Otherwise, your device could be vulnerable to security threats.
Android vs iOS: The mobile OS battle
We’ve already touched a few times on what makes Google’s OS different from Apple’s iOS. However, we want to point out that the two operating systems have become much more similar than different over the years.
In the early days of the smartphone industry, Android and iOS were wildly different. Each OS offered features the other didn’t. They also didn’t look at all similar. This dichotomy created an “Android vs iOS” culture that still pervades today.
Really, though, there are only a handful of things iPhone can do that Android can’t (and vice versa). Google and Apple have been cribbing from each other so much over the years that the two operating systems are closer than ever.
Even after 10 years, the Android vs iOS war rages on, even though both systems are very similar nowadays.
The only distinct difference between the two is how much control Apple has over iOS — and how Google doesn’t have that same level of control over its mobile OS. For example, it is impossible to sideload apps on an out-of-the-box iPhone, and there’s only one app store (the Apple App Store). Apple also tightly controls the kinds of apps developers can make for iPhones.
By contrast, it’s pretty is for you to install Android apps from other stores or even from the open web. Additionally, Google allows you to choose which apps you use for pretty much every smartphone function, from your browser to your messaging apps to your keyboard.
The advantage to Apple’s model is that iOS is more uniform, safer, and allows devices to see updates for long periods. The downside, of course, is that the user doesn’t have as much say as to what they can do with their device.