The dirty little secret of iOS 7 -- some devices won't get the killer new features

Credit: jinterwas via Flickr

AirDrop is one of the most dramatic features of iOS 7, with lots of business potential.

But before you start sharing files using AirDrop, you may need to spend some money on a newer iPhone.

The same is true if you're looking forward to using live filters directly in the revamped Camera app. Both of these features require you to have an iPhone 5 (or iPhone 5S or whatever moniker Apple is planning for the next generations of iPhones).

That Apple is requiring newer hardware for newer features isn't all that unusual. Siri requires the iPhone 4S, or newer even though the iPhone 4 was still on the market (and remains on the market today) when Siri was launched two years ago. The ability to shoot panoramic images, which Apple introduced last year in iOS 6, likewise requires an iPhone 4S or better.

When Apple introduced AirDrop in OS X Lion, many users were disappointed to find that the wireless chipsets in their Macs didn't support the feature. When AirPlay Mirroring came to both Macs and iOS devices, it wasn't universally available -- it only works on Macs introduced in 2011 or later and on iOS it requires at least an iPhone 4S or an iPad 2.

You could argue that Apple is trying to use these new features as a cudgel to force users to buy new devices. But the more likely reason is that the older unsupported devices don't have the hardware needed for the new features to work at all, or they don't have hardware that's capable of delivery a consistently good user experience.

The rundown: Which features are not available on which platforms?

Based on information available from Apple's site, the company will do a pretty good job of keeping iOS 7 feature-consistent across the current iOS devices on the market. Across all the devices that are supported by iOS 7 -- iPhone 4, 4S, and 5; the current 5th generation iPod touch; and the 2nd through 4th generation iPad along with the iPad mini -- there are only a handful of features that aren't supported across all devices.

  • AirDrop isn't supported on the iPhone 4 and 4S, the iPad 2, or the third generation iPad
  • Panoramic photos aren't supported on the iPhone 4 or on any iPad models
  • Filters in the camera app aren't supported on the iPhone 4, 4S, or any iPad models (though filters in the Photos app are supported on all iOS 7 devices except the iPad 2)
  • Siri isn't supported on the iPhone 4 or iPad 2.

Of those features, AirDrop is the one that's most significant both for consumers and business users alike. AirDrop has the potential to be a killer feature for business users needing a quick and secure way to share files, photos, and other content. It also offers a secure alternative to relying on consumer-oriented cloud storage solutions to share data while still giving IT the ability to restrict AirDrop sharing from apps dealing with particularly sensitive data using the new enterprise-focused Managed Open In feature in iOS 7.

Purchasing decisions

In the grand scheme of things, the mixed availability of AirDrop isn't a major headache for business users or IT. There are plenty of existing ways to share data though they might not be as convenient. As a value-add, however, IT departments and tech-savvy managers should ensure that BYOD users understand which iPhones and iPads will have the feature.

A recent study showed that just only about half (52%) of recent iPhone purchases were iPhone 5s. The remaining 48% were the iPhone 4 (18%), which is free with a two-year contract, or iPhone 4S (30%). Many of those buyers may not realize that iOS 7 features won't be available to them and that they may need to wait a significant amount of time before being able to upgrade to another device.

The issue also affects companies or schools buying large numbers of iPads for their their workers or students, since the iPad 2 remains on sale. In such instances, iPads are typically bought or assigned for multi-year stretches with a lifecycle more like that of a PC than of a smartphone. This is particularly true with some of Apple's leasing programs.

Looking forward

Apple isn't known for being a company that maintains support for legacy technologies or hardware. The company was the first to eschew the floppy and, more recently, the optical drive. From the perspective of a consumer, business user, school administration, or IT leader, this creates a frustrating challenge to know how long a device will be reliably supported.

This is particularly true given Apple's current approach to delivering low-cost iPhones by continuing to sell former models. Ironically, however, the current trend among carriers and retailers to accept trade-ins, offer earlier upgrade programs, and even replace contract subsidies with financing options shows that the mobile market is actually moving to align itself with Apple. 

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